Let’s Dream Big!

Organizing Matters

Volume 115, No. 5May, 2015

Maggie Russell-Brown
Maggie Russell-Brown

Maggie Russell-Brown

“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them…” – Frederick Douglas

What does it mean to dream big? This question and many others were asked in an honest exchange at the first National Organizers Workshop, which was hosted by the AFL-CIO Organizing Institute in early March. The Organizing Institute was founded 25 years ago to address the dire need of the labor movement to recruit, train and develop talented people from all walks of life to become the future of the labor movement.

Over two days, 700 organizers from labor unions, student and community groups and worker centers came together to share innovative, bold and successful ideas about how to revitalize the labor movement. During discussions and workshops, organizers shared creative strategies to address the changing landscape of labor and to fight the onslaught of attacks on working people.

There were inspiring workshops on changing laws that would facilitate new organizing and hold employers better accountable. We learned how to help rank-and-file leaders become more active in their union, which creates more power when bargaining for a new contract. Another workshop focused on the troubling pattern of more and more employers misclassifying workers as independent contractors and what tools labor organizers can use to fight back. We discussed how technology and social media can bring workers together in a safe space to talk about what needs to change.

Numbers do not lie. According to the Congressional Research Service, 34.8 percent of all wage and salary workers belonged to unions in 1954. By 1983, only 20.1 percent workers belonged. In 2014, that number was down to 11.1 percent.

Activists get inspired at the National Organizers Workshop.

Activists get inspired at the National Organizers Workshop.

Let’s look at our own industry. According to the Census Bureau, there were 15,581 full-time musicians living in New York City between 2010 and 2012, along with 31,777 students graduating with a degree in music. To get more specific, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has published data showing there are 4,300 musicians regularly employed (not freelance) in the New York City metro area. Among this group, the average wage is $43.10 per hour. The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not track freelance musicians nor does it take into account the many hours of private practice, rehearsals and other activities musicians regularly do in order to hone their craft and promote themselves. Likewise, accurate data is not possible to collect because musicians are not treated as employees by jazz clubs like the Jazz Standard, Iridium, Village Vanguard, Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, Birdland Jazz Club, Blue Note and others. Multi-billion dollar corporate casinos such as Resorts World Casino in Queens and others also skirt the law on a daily basis by classifying musicians as independent contractors or freelancers.

While Local 802 has seen a decline in membership over the past 15 years, we still represent a large percentage of musicians working in New York City. The decrease in our membership numbers has less to do with a decrease in the number of musicians in New York and more to do with the shifting of musical performance to nonunionized venues and bandleaders, which has inevitably created a race to the bottom. Some employers have been able to erode the area standards fought for and won by union musicians long ago. When musicians are not earning a union wage, they are less motivated to join the union.

But when musicians collectively demand change, as they first did more than 90 years ago, then the industry floor rises as nightclubs and employers are forced to meet the demands for dignified wages and working conditions. The industry has fundamentally changed since musicians first united to fight and win decent wages and benefits. Today we are challenged with emerging technologies and slick business models that have made this business difficult to make a decent living in. But we know change is possible because musicians faced similar seemingly impossible odds decades ago and won when they united and demanded change.

So let’s dream big. How would you make the music industry work better for you? We know our city is the music capital of the world. Tourists flock here to experience our live music, students come to study here under some of the greatest living masters, and musicians breathe life and culture into every corner of our city. There is money flowing in every direction except into the pockets of the very workers who are creating the art. How do we make change? The answer can only be found when musicians come together to demand it.

How is the music industry working for you? And how would you make it better? E-mail me at or call me at (212) 245-4802, ext. 157.

Maggie Russell-Brown is the director of organizing and field services. If you’re playing a job where you feel disrespected or know that you aren’t being paid fairly, contact Maggie at (212) 245-4802, ext. 157 or You can also call the Local 802 hotline anonymously at (212) 245-4802, ext. 260 to report a job or working situation.