How to Form a Union

Tip: don’t wait for the "Union Fairy"!Organizing Matters

Volume CIV, No. 12December, 2004

Summer Smith

Once upon a dark and stormy time, not so long ago, New York City musicians didn’t receive health insurance from their employers. Not one musician could expect to retire with an employer-paid pension. And all were expected to accept their employers’ conditions without complaint.

And then, one brilliant day, rays of sunlight broke through the clouds and bestowed upon these lucky souls lavish gifts of living wages, job security, and health and pension benefits.

Well, the first part of that tale is true enough. The second part, however, exists solely in the imaginations of many musicians I encounter as a union organizer. Time and again I hear the phrase, “Well, my gig doesn’t pay benefits, but it’s not a union job, so I just have to live with that.”

And then I get to share this beautiful news with them: no, you don’t have to live with that. Union jobs have better wages and benefits precisely because the musicians who held those jobs decided that they didn’t “have to live with that” either.


Why do recording musicians get paid for the re-use and new use of their work? Why can Broadway and Off Broadway musicians look forward to a comfortable retirement? Why do the players in freelance and Lincoln Center orchestras have job security and a voice on the job?

Because working musicians decided they deserved it and collaborated with their colleagues to make it happen. Because they ORGANIZED.

To organize simply means to unionize. To stand up with your colleagues and collectively use your strength to achieve goals you can’t achieve as individuals.

We organize to win health benefits, pension benefits, better wages, job security and better working conditions. We organize to make our jobs into the jobs they should be, with the respect and dignity that professional musicians deserve.


Organizing happens in every field that employs professional musicians.

802’s Theatre Department has been making steady gains in Off and Off Off Broadway productions over the last decade so that jobs that once paid low cash wages now pay about 50 percent more, plus benefits like health insurance, pension and vacation pay.

Among other recent organizing victories in the Concert Department, musicians at the Opera Company of Brooklyn won a union and kept the virtual orchestra machine out of their pit.

In October, the Recording Department was able to win a contract covering every musician performing VH-1’s Fashion Rocks by getting the support of all the musicians before the show, including royalty artists and the musicians who tour with them.

The Justice for Jazz Artists campaign continues to grow as jazz leaders sign contracts providing union health and pension benefits for side musicians.

And single engagement musicians have formed their first-ever organizing committee with the goal of bringing more club date agencies under union contract, adding to the half-dozen victories over the past five years.

The newest members 802 has welcomed are teaching artists. When teachers in the Jazz Department at the New School organized in 1998, only one other music education program had a union contract. Just six years later, the Metropolitan Opera Guild and the Children’s Orchestra Society faculty have become the sixth and seventh in a string of unionizing victories for teaching artists. The faculty members in these schools are paving the way for more teachers to win the wages, benefits, and respect of a union contract.


The first step is a call or visit to the Organizing Department. We’ll talk to you in confidence about your gig and the possibility of winning a union contract.

In principle, the organizing process sounds simple. You and your colleagues meet and decide that you would like to negotiate with your employer as a group, with real power, rather than merely accepting the conditions that your employer arbitrarily decides to offer each of you.

In countries with stronger labor laws, it can be that easy. In Canada, if workers want to unionize, all they have to do is sign cards to that effect. If a majority signs cards, the workers have a union, and the employer must negotiate with their union for a fair contract.

It is sometimes that easy here in the United States, but only if an employer voluntarily honors the wishes of its workers.

When the musicians of the Big Apple Circus signed a unanimous public petition for 802 representation, the employer agreed to recognize it, and the musicians negotiated and ratified their first contract less than two months later, in January 2004.

Some less scrupulous employers, however, will refuse to recognize their employees’ request for union representation and force them to seek an election from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

802 and many other unions actively avoid the NLRB for several reasons.

Most of the current NLRB directors have been appointed by the Bush administration, and are generally anti-worker. Their policies allow employers to use the NLRB to delay and discourage workers from unionizing by holding expensive and time-consuming hearings.

When teaching artists at the Kaufman Center sought representation with 802, the center stalled for 20 months using NLRB hearings and other delay tactics as part of their million-dollar campaign to defeat the faculty’s union.

Ultimately, the teachers won a contract, but the process reinforced the importance of avoiding the NLRB whenever possible.

The specifics of your gig will determine the shape of the organizing campaign. Fundamentally, unionizing is about you and your fellow musicians talking to each other and deciding together to have a real and powerful collective voice in your working conditions. There truly is strength in numbers.


If you have a gig that pays union wages and benefits and if you enjoy the job security of a union contract, remember that contract wasn’t a gift from your employer or from the “Union Fairy.”

It is, instead, a gift from your colleagues from years past.

You have a responsibility to those musicians, and to your fellow musicians present and future, to actively organize to win union agreements.


Organizing is essential to the strength of our union. Bringing more employers under union contract and bringing in more members is the only way to ensure that the successes of our predecessors are passed on to those who will follow.

If you have work that isn’t covered by a union agreement, make a confidential call to the Organizing

Department and together we’ll determine if we can win a contract.

By standing up for one another, we’ll continue a proud tradition of musicians working together to improve our jobs and our lives.