Justice for Jazz Artists!

Are we headed towards a showdown with the jazz clubs?

Volume 111, No. 2February, 2011

John O'Connor

Will jazz clubs like the Blue Note do the right thing and pay pension to musicians? Or are we going to have to ramp up our public pressure? We think the clock is ticking. Photo: Hubert Steed

From out of the Justice for Jazz Artists campaign has emerged the idea of the jazz nightclub campaign. The question of how to get jazz clubs to pay into the AFM pension fund has broadened into the question of how do we organize the jazz clubs under the principles of collective bargaining? After all, there is more than one issue with which jazz musicians are concerned.

There was a time when the union would have sat down with the club owners in this city who benefited from the elimination of the entertainment tax that Local 802 worked so hard to achieve five years ago. We would have been willing to do whatever was necessary to find a way to divert the dollars that had once been paid as a tax into the pension fund for musicians who played the nightclubs. The nightclubs, every last one of them, made it clear they have no interest in talking to us. Letters and phone calls went unanswered. Even veteran jazz supporter and critic Nat Hentoff couldn’t get the time of day from club owners on this subject.

Is it time for something new?

Jazz clubs or for that matter, any nightclubs, have not ordinarily been the target of organizing campaigns by this local or any other. It would be difficult to say exactly why that is.

Perhaps it has to do with the difficulty of organizing a workplace that has such short-term employment. Usually musicians play a particular club, at most, a run of three or four days once in a year. Often it’s only one night a year. But that hasn’t stopped other types of workers from organizing, such as plumbers, electricians and other skilled trades workers who work for numerous employers in short term employment.

Or maybe it has to do with the question of whether or not nightclubs are employers of musicians under relevant labor laws and standards. There has been a lot of discussion and controversy as to whether or not the leader of a band is the employer as opposed to the nightclub. But that technicality on its own wouldn’t necessarily prevent the union from entering into an agreement with a nightclub. Independent contractors in other trades have managed to find ways to hammer out union agreements.

When the AFM’s union density was much stronger due to the nature of dance bands and the nightclub culture 60 years ago, there seemed to be no need to organize the clubs because the union was able to enforce its internal rules among its members.

Whatever the reason or reasons nightclubs have not been the targets of serious organizing attempts for the betterment of wages, benefits and working conditions, Local 802 has decided that it is now time to give the notion of organizing clubs some serious thought. We know that musicians are being exploited on many levels in the clubs in New York City. And it is not just about pension. Musicians are often underpaid, mistreated and their desire to bring their talent and skill to audiences is exploited to no end. But clubs are making money from the tremendous talents of New York musicians. The only real way to curtail that sort of exploitation is through organizing. And though musicians involved in the Justice for Jazz Artists initiative have led the way, we’re not just talking about jazz.

In Nat Hentoff’s column about jazz clubs’ refusal to talk to the union, which was reprinted in the January issue of Allegro, he said “if jazz musicians and their supporters set up a picket line at the Blue Note [as an example] I won’t cross it…” If there is a picket line in front of a major jazz club, it will be the first time in memory. But that doesn’t mean that Local 802 and its members aren’t planning on going there. Currently, organizers at Local 802 are talking to scores of jazz musicians about organizing the clubs and so far the response has been enthusiastic, as the musicians have brought numerous issues of concern to the table.

As for Hentoff’s suggestion at the end of his article that “this could start a national Justice for Jazz Artists jam session,” we are all ears. The AFM’s new leadership is quite open to a national campaign. Indeed, we think one is necessary. Organizing clubs in one city is not going to do it. We believe we have leverage at our disposal to bring the clubs to the table. It may be one at a time. But eventually, we think the clubs will learn that it is more in their interest to talk to us than not. That’s a strategy we and the Federation are willing to take on the road.