Local 802 Must Not Lose the Big Picture

Recording Vice-President's Report

Volume CX, No. 12December, 2010

John O'Connor

Should Local 802 be involved in causes that go beyond the scope of its immediate mission? Here is a perennial question that dogs every administration of this union if not every administration of every union.

The question has been raised recently by some members in regard to certain actions of the Local 802 Executive Board, including the decision last spring to send a letter to the governor of Arizona expressing dismay at legislation which, among other things, according to Amnesty International, empowers law enforcement officers to stop and interrogate every individual in the state regarding citizenship status.

A discussion took place during an Executive Board meeting over the Arizona law as to whether Local 802 ought to weigh in on the issue that had become national headline news last April.

Was the discussion a waste of the Executive Board’s time?

The business before the board was handled as it is every Tuesday, but many on the Executive Board were concerned about the implications of such a law.

Is it so farfetched to think that a Local 802 member on tour would be pulled over and questioned by police under such a law because of his or her appearance?

And even if such a scenario is unlikely, does that make the law irrelevant to interests of Local 802 members?

What about union musicians who live in Arizona to whom such a scenario is more likely?

Do we have an obligation to them to show solidarity?

The answers to these questions may differ from member to member, but it is not out of the union’s sphere to grapple with them.

It’s a lot simpler to say that the local should stay within its scope, as one member put it in a recent letter to the editor, than it is to determine what the union’s scope is.

Section 2, Paragraph a) of the Local 802 Constitution says that one of the objects of this Local is to “…conserve and promote the welfare of its members, to advance and protect their interests and enforce good faith, fair dealing and adherence to union principles.”

How does it advance and protect the interest of Local 802 to ignore human right abuses that could very well affect our members?

So long as the elected leaders of Local 802 are taking care of the business of the union, how broadly we interpret our interests depends on conclusions made by serious debate and continual analysis.

Our mission does not end at the Hudson River. And issues that go beyond the Hudson River are often issues that can affect musicians in New York City quite directly.

For example, some members have argued that the union had no business involving itself in the debate over universal healthcare.

Maybe they’re right.

But what if the American labor movement had been successful at accomplishing something along the lines of the healthcare system in Canada?

Such an enormous change in the way we deal with healthcare in this country would have meant relieving Local 802 of the great burden of having to bargain for healthcare in negotiations, thereby allowing us to more effectively tackle other important matters at the bargaining table.

It’s easy to see how this would have been an immediate and great benefit to our members.

It is a misunderstanding of how trade unionism works to insist that a union concern itself only with its apparent immediate needs.

Just as one worker or one musician standing alone cannot ensure fairness and justice, one local union or one trade union cannot protect its members without considering its relationship to the rest of the labor movement and those movements that protect and advance the rights of working people.

And when you think about it, all social movements by and large stand for working people.

Those of wealth and power don’t need to worry about protecting their rights. Their interests are served by defeating social movements.

Part of a union’s mission is to join in common cause with activists fighting for various rights in order to create an environment in which a union has a better place in which to maneuver for the rights of its members.

The reverse is also true.

Advocates of social justice movements who understand the nature of change and power know that making common cause with the union movement is a necessary ingredient for victory.

No one knew this better than Martin Luther King, Jr., who, when speaking of the civil rights movement, said, “Our needs are identical with labor’s needs: Decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old-age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children, and respect in the community.”

It’s also a mistake to think that tackling the broader political questions that affect Local 802 members is something that began with this or the last administration.

John Glasel, who few would dispute contributed a great deal to the well-being of Local 802 and its members, was no stranger to union activism on a national and international level.

A headline in the January 1985 Allegro reads, “802 Marches For Human Rights.” The article describes how Local 802 took part in two major demonstrations in New York protesting apartheid in South Africa and supporting a strike of copper miners against the Phelps Dodge Company in … this should ring a bell… Arizona!

What kind of union would we be if we ignored every cause that went beyond Broadway and Lincoln Center? I would maintain we would have very few friends in a political climate that increasingly demands a great many friends.

We just saw a midterm election that seated in Congress men and women whose goals are well documented.

These goals include the dismantling of some of the few tools that unions have left to their disposal.

Is it beyond Local 802’s scope to support candidates that support labor rights? Or to work for the defeat of those who would love to see the further erosion of union rights?

These candidates were not created in a vacuum. They are the same candidates that supported the law in Arizona that makes it a crime to look Mexican without a permit.

If we confine ourselves to the narrowest definition of what our scope is, what happens when we need to call on those we need in our hour of darkness?

A narrow definition of our scope is just that: narrow.