Help One, Help All

Why the union's jazz campaign is good for all of us

Volume 113, No. 10November, 2013

John O'Connor
Jazz musicians, union staff and supporters spread the word about Local 802’s Justice for Jazz Artists campaign, in a musical rally and demonstration over the summer.

Jazz musicians, union staff and supporters spread the word about Local 802’s Justice for Jazz Artists campaign, in a musical rally and demonstration over the summer.

In the end of my block is a restaurant that features live music most nights of the week. The caliber of the musicianship is fine and the diversity of musical styles is exciting, ranging from reggae to country swing to jazz to flamenco. I’ve spoken with several of the musicians on nights that my family has eaten there. The musicians are paid, though modestly, and their pay is supplemented by tips. The restaurant does a brisk business, and if the musicians won a union contract, the owner could likely afford to guarantee some sort of minimum scale and benefits. On any given night, a budget of a few hundred dollars would do the trick. Music helps bring customers into the place because the music is part of the restaurant’s identity.

I have hopes that someday restaurants like this one will be unionized. That notion, to many, may seem a pipedream, but I’m optimistic and I’ll tell you why. The Justice for Jazz Artists (J4JA) campaign is gaining steam, and I believe it will achieve success because so many musicians, fans, politicians, religious leaders and celebrities support it. I’ll get back to that point in a minute, but what does this have to do with the restaurant down at the end of my block? Plenty.

J4JA is primarily about jazz musicians. But its success will lead us to organizing for the betterment of all musicians who play in the city’s nightclubs and restaurants. The model that we end up creating will be used throughout the city and indeed in other cities throughout the country. At this very moment, we are involved in negotiations with the nightclub 54 Below, and the eventual deal promises to be a break-out contract unlike any we’ve negotiated before. It will help forge a solution toward collective bargaining in nightclubs, a notion resisted by clubs throughout the city.

There is so much exploitation of musicians throughout the city. In some venues, musicians are paid very little and sometimes nothing. So sometimes I am asked this question: why is our biggest focus on the six major jazz clubs, where musicians are treated relatively well? It’s a good question that requires us to think about the big picture.

Originally, the Jazz Advisory Committee – in concert with the organizing staff under the Bill Moriarity administration – targeted those six clubs because we knew that the clubs had the means to pay pension, which is a key component of our organizing goals. Smaller nightclubs may sometimes seem more exploitive of musicians, but targeting smaller clubs has less chance of raising the profile of our campaign. The poignancy of large-scale nightclubs ripping off jazz musicians by refusing to pay pension that other musicians receive is what draws so many supporters to the campaign.

Once the union is successful in bringing collective bargaining to the nightclubs, other businesses that are making money from music can be brought into the discussion. The union has shown flexibility when it comes to making agreements with businesses of all sizes. In addition, the more the union comes to the aid of nightclub musicians, the more the reputation of the union as a champion for exploited musicians – no matter where they are in the city – will grow. This will result in less exploitation and will make further campaigns more effective.

J4JA has gained tremendous momentum in bringing together a broad coalition that will eventually isolate the major nightclubs and increase the pressure for them to come to the bargaining table. Over the past several months, dozens of city and state elected officials have endorsed our campaign, as well as some U.S. Congress members. In addition, clergy from the African American community have endorsed the campaign and have committed to assist with our demonstrations and actions against the nightclubs. Major jazz artists continue to endorse the campaign. Our Facebook support has exceeded 50,000 fans. (See Recently, Harry Belafonte endorsed the campaign. His office even called us and asked what he can do to be of assistance. We expect other high-profile celebrities and activists to follow suit.

The J4JA campaign is about many things, but pension has always been at the top of the list. What the campaign represents is a gateway to expanding pension contributions to a greater array of musicians. This is of vital importance for musicians and for the union’s pension fund. They go hand in hand. The more musicians who participate in the fund, the healthier the fund is. The healthier the fund is, the more musicians benefit. That is why organizing is so important to keeping the pension fund meaningful for musicians who are already participating and for those who have yet to receive pension benefits.


Recently, we introduced our Activist Circle, in which members can sign up to help make the union stronger by increasing membership activism. All members of Local 802 have a stake in new organizing and a stake in membership involvement in our organizing campaigns, if for no other reason than our organizing successes mean a healthier and wealthier pension fund. This includes members who are accustomed to regular pension contributions, like those who play Broadway and work under other union agreements. The more involvement we have from our members in our campaigns, the better chance of success. The union has to grow to survive. There is no way around that fact. We have to get beyond our usual circumference of influence and organize the vast legions of musicians whom we do not presently reach. Think downtown and Brooklyn. This is where our future is. J4JA is the beginning. The end result is up to all of us. The slogan “We are the union” has never been more salient.

To join the Activist Circle, or for more information, send an e-mail to