Labor unions and the arts

Volume 123, No. 11December, 2023

John Pietaro

The Harlem Artists Guild marching on May Day 1934

Art is labor. It’s really that simple. Creative professionals have crafted their art into a career. While there’s no dispute that the work of musicians, writers, actors, and dancers as well as visual, film and performance artists begins with visceral inspiration, our pride lies also in our success. Art is labor. It’s highly specialized, it requires countless hours, boundless energy, and visionary determination. If art is work, why aren’t musicians and other artists viewed as workers?

Much of the problem lies in the oddly American concept that creative pursuits are but hobbies, perhaps side gigs at best. But another reason for this misconception can actually be found within artists: when we separate ourselves from other workers — and other unions — we can easily fall prey to the divisiveness that’s long been weaponized against the labor movement for well over a century.

The Artists Union, also in 1934


Artists — cultural workers — of an earlier age came to understand the need for unity among all workers in the fight for fair wages, job security, and other factors of workplace justice. We can look to the radical years of the 1920s and particularly the ‘30s as the performing and fine arts unions as well as “fraternal” and professional organizations of creatives grew in breadth, reach, and diversity, often carrying with them a stinging militant intensity.

The scope soon widened to encompass free speech, health and safety laws, racial justice, and women’s and immigrants’ equality, as well as the battle against child labor. Ultimately, labor’s agenda came to include sick leave, the 40-hour work week, vacation, holidays, benefits, pension, the grievance and arbitration process, and of course the contracts negotiated to legally ensure all of this.

Local 802’s first president, Jacob “Jack” Rosenberg

Local 802, founded in an act of rebellion, recognized the immediate need for a union built on racial equality and inclusion, as did the reconstructed Screenwriters Guild (now WGA), Screen Actors Guild, and Actors Equity, followed by the Guilds of Variety Artists and Musical Artists, among others. Highly relevant to artists’ liberation were the left-wing organizations such as the national John Reed Club, a radical multi-arts grouping named for writer and journalist Reed, and its associated collectives. Among these were the Artists Union (see second photo at the top of this story), the Workers Music League (see its Workers Songbook above), and the esteemed Composers Collective of New York which included Aaron Copland, Elie Siegmeister, Charles Lewis Seeger, Henry Cowell, Ruth Crawford and Marc Blitzstein. Other such vital organizations were the Harlem Artists Guild (see photo at the top of this story), the League of American Writers, and League of American Artists. These formal organizations had constitutions, held regular strategizing meetings and staged important events; most had their own journals as well, such as Art Front.

The boldness of cultural workers during those years is best exemplified by this quote from Charles Lewis Seeger, musicologist, founder of the Composers Collective, and the father of Pete Seeger, who, years later would be renowned for his own music of social change: “We felt urgency in those days…The social system is going to hell here. Music might be able to do something about it. Let’s see if we can try. We must try.” (“Unsung Songs of Protest: The Composers Collective of New York,” New York Folklore)

Learn more about Local 802’s history.


The recent period has exemplified a new day of labor unrest in most every quarter and strikes across the country have empowered the movement. Among arts workers, this year we’ve witnessed a powerful campaign by the Writers Guild of America, sustaining a 148-day strike which ended in a historic victory. And SAG-AFTRA entered its negotiations brandishing a strike vote against the same AMPTP. SAG-AFTRA’s strike also resulted in another stunning win, following strong and tireless support from the arts unions as well as the wider movement. The AFM, Actors Equity, IATSE, AGMA, AGVA and others within and beyond the entertainment and arts community, have stood by these union siblings all along.

Some of these trends began even earlier as evidenced by the Local 802 members who are faculty at the New School’s School of Jazz and Contemporary Music. In militant support of our ACT-UAW co-workers, 802 refused to cross the picket line and engaged in multiple demonstrations of solidarity, marching, and playing music, in the streets of Greenwich Village. Following ACT-UAW’s smashing success, our members saw the benefit of such mutual activism when our own negotiations committee demanded and won a contract of parity for the first time. And more recently, there was an outpouring of support for the actions of the New York City Ballet Orchestra. When faced with a seemingly insurmountable struggle, there’s nothing to compare with the sight of union comrades standing, marching and chanting during multiple rallies.

In the current climate with reactionary anti-union sentiment from the political right-wing, the business sector and whole segments of governance, solidarity must become both mantra and mission. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and journalist, songwriter Ralph Chaplin in particular, coined the oft-heard phrase “Solidarity Forever” in his 1911 song of the same name. The IWW reinforced this with the lasting slogan “An injury to one is an injury to all,” the heart of solidarity itself.


Let’s close with a few of the labor movement basics…

What is a union?

A group of individuals working for the same employer or industry who come together to gain a voice on the job and to compel the employer to do what the workers need and want. The members ARE the union. Together, with elected officers and union staff, they negotiate, win, and maintain contracts for a living wage, job security and a wide array of benefits. Local 802 is a local of the AFM but we are also affiliated with the NYC Central Labor Council and NYS AFL-CIO. Our local and the AFM are affiliated with the full American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). These larger bodies offer the Local an important reach beyond our jurisdiction and create a vast sense of community.

Who runs the union?

For any democratic union, membership itself is truly in charge. Elected officers and staff are the movement professionals among us, the guides, educators, and organizers. Local 802 is run by three officers: the President, Financial Vice President, and Recording Vice President, and is governed by an Executive Board comprised of professional working musicians, all of which are elected by membership. The union staff includes business reps, organizers, contract and payroll auditors, member services specialists, communications pros, and clericals, as well as IT and data entry specs.

What is a collective bargaining agreement?

A collective bargaining agreement is a legally binding contract negotiated between the union and the employer. All contracts must be ratified by members via an election. Employees’ rights, wages, working conditions, and grievance procedures details are among the sections of the CBA.

What are my rights as a union member?

Members in good standing have the right to vote in union elections and contract ratifications, as well as the right to attend and vote in membership meetings. As a member, you can also serve on union committees and caucuses relevant to your work, and you can run for elected office.

Why do musicians need a union?

No matter the stage on which you perform, we, all of us need a voice on the job. And being a union musician remains the mark of excellence. Together, we can win the improvements that no one can on their own. One of Local 802’s goals is to have contracts with pension and health benefits become the industry standard. And we win these through organizing. We cannot accept a race to the bottom for those who cast the soundtrack of this arts capital.

Learn more at

John Pietaro is Local 802’s director of organizing.