Lessons learned from a grassroots organizing

Views from the Board

Volume 111, No. 11November, 2011

Andy Schwartz

The wonderful success of the musician-led organizing of the Winter Jazzfest is something to be celebrated by both Local 802 members and those not yet affiliated with the local.

It points to a progressive evolution in thinking at Local 802 as to what our mission is and how our union can respond to the ever-changing realities of professional musicians of all callings.

Expanding the umbrella of union coverage for musicians in fields once thought to be out of our reach is a must if Local 802 and the AFM are going to remain viable and relevant in the years to come.

The Winter Jazz agreement represents an important step in this effort to grow beyond our comfort zone and connect with more musicians.

Our agreements in the traditional areas of theatre, recording, concertizing, and club dates have served us well and continue to be the backbone of what 802 is all about.

But while we continue to focus our resources on our home turf, this evolution acknowledges that something has changed in recent decades.

Some of the most vital and important music is being performed and distributed around the globe without any protections for musicians: no union agreements to ensure a respectful wage when the work is done, and nothing to ensure that once the music is out there on a recording there will be compensation to musicians for any new uses.

In the current DIY (do-it-yourself) environment, the easy access to self-promotion and distribution online has opened a floodgate, and out has come a rush of creative work by artists, all hoping to cut through the noise and be heard and build careers for themselves.

Many of these musicians are unaware of what awaits them, and most are totally at the mercy of the industry gatekeepers and others looking to build companies based on the creative work of others.

Giving away one’s work is almost the norm these days in the effort to self-promote. Why is this okay for creative artists, while no other professional person would think of working for free?

In 2007, I began talks with indie music artists to try to understand why we as a union were failing to connect with this enormous community. It was an education that is still ongoing, but it started some wheels turning.

Of significant help and support was Marc Ribot, a renowned guitarist in the world of indie music making, and an activist with a history of organizing at the Knitting Factory, Arlene’s Grocery, and Tonic. He is one of the few Local 802 members who has the respect of the indie community for both his fine talent and efforts on behalf of those musicians who are struggling for a better life and career. In 2010, Marc was able to introduce me to the great bassist and composer William Parker of the Vision Festival, which then paved the way for the establishment of an ad hoc committee of music artists, union organizers, and other interested parties. We met under the banner of a new committee that was dubbed AvantJazz802. We began to look at the issues most critical for both musicians and Local 802.

The outgrowth of this committee’s work was the determination to focus attention on the issues surrounding employment at certain jazz festivals. Some of these festivals were widely admired by the musicians for presenting new important work, but a few were seen as not upholding community standards of compensation and respectful working conditions.

Local 802 offered guidance and organizing know-how. The musicians provided the facts about their situation, the specific changes that were needed, and the leverage by organizing via petition and social networking. A steering committee of musicians was formed and asked their colleagues to trust them, and to grant Local 802 the power to represent them at the negotiating table, be they union members or not.

Once at the table, the musicians themselves were able to deftly make their case to the employers, with the support of Local 802. To the employers’ credit, they recognized the validity of the claims and understood the symbiotic relationship that needed to be nurtured. It was a perfect storm of activism that demonstrated the power of musician-led organizing.

The lesson for both Local 802 and the music artists that built this grassroots powerbase is that in working together we can succeed in ways never imagined before. The union must always be willing to listen carefully, and then act with the full support of the musicians involved before going forward into uncharted areas.

I am proud of our accomplishment, and see the potential to transfer this success to other music fields. We are truly evolving at Local 802, and not a minute too soon.

Congratulations to everyone involved.