Hang Together or Hang Separately

New Seminar Offers Tools to WinOrganizing Matters

Volume CV, No. 10October, 2005

John Arbo

Ben Franklin said, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” That’s especially relevant today, when unions are under fire and fighting for musicians’ rights and workers’ rights is tough.

In June, I attended a newly-designed seminar, simply entitled “Strategic Education Training.” The workshop was developed by arts and entertainment unions in the state AFL-CIO. I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in unionism and the improvement of the welfare of their colleagues — and themselves.

The workshop was presented by Susan Borenstein and Nancy Fox. (Borenstein worked in the Organizing Department of Local 802 for 14 years and is now a national representative with the AFL-CIO. Fox is associate director in charge of external affairs, membership education and outreach with SAG.)

There were about 40 people from several unions, including about 10 of us from 802. Others were from the Writers’ Guild, AFTRA, Actors’ Equity, SAG and Nabet-CWA.

We learned about some of the history of entertainment unions and of the entities with which we negotiate. Breaking down into small groups with a mixture of people from the different unions was enjoyable as we looked at 10 factors that influence unions’ power from our particular perspectives, finding the commonalities and differences for each craft, with each group ranking them in terms of importance.

We also examined problems facing us today. A main challenge identified by all was technology. Musicians already know about this. We battle virtual orchestra machines, DJ’s replacing bands on club dates, the mechanization of popular music with loops and samples — and the danger of that becoming what people are used to hearing.

Similarly, each union faces its own technology foes. AFTRA is fighting “voice tracking,” which enables radio station owners like Clear Channel to eliminate live DJ’s and announcers from radio broadcasts. One of SAG’s fears is computer-generated extras in movies. The Writers’ Guild has fewer assistant and apprentice positions because of computers. (Word processing and e-mail greatly simplify the drafting and editing process.) And so on.

We’re also all facing the consolidation of employers. This is very dramatic with record companies, for instance. There are only five major companies now — there used to be many more. We used to negotiate with million-dollar entities. Now management, be it BMG, Disney or Clear Channel, often has resources in the billions.

Outsourcing via globalization, decentralization of production and many other factors make it difficult to maintain a union presence in our field, along with the Bush administration’s distinct hostility towards unions. (Don’t take my word for it, just Google “Bush administration” and “antiunion” for some fun reading!) Denial of the right to organize for many government workers and a stacked NLRB are just a couple of examples of this.

What became very clear is that our best response to consolidation of management power is to organize in our fields to increase union density and to consolidate or collaborate whenever possible.

(The recent departure, for better or worse, of several large unions from the AFL-CIO was partly because they want more time and money put into just these things.)

The failed (but not dead) SAG/AFTRA merger, and COBUG with its historic support during the 2003 Broadway musicians’ strike, are examples of where unions need to head, and soon.

In fact, the idea of all entertainment unions merging into one big union was brought up by rank-and-file folks at the workshop. Imagine actors, musicians, stagehands, and other entertainment workers all working together, all the time. The power would be unstoppable.

If you’re already reading Allegro that’s a good sign. Why don’t you take another step and attend the next Strategic Education Training seminar? It was like hearing someone on your instrument who’s a lot better than you — kind of discouraging at first, but ultimately very inspiring.

Two Local 802 staff members are now trained to teach SET seminars: Senior Organizer Summer Smith, and Senior Theatre Rep Lynne Bond.

It sounds corny, but in the end, any union isn’t just the staff and administration, it’s us, the rank and file. The more informed and involved we all are, the stronger 802 (and all the unions) will be.

John Arbo is a member of Local 802.