Looking Back, Looking Forward

Recording Vice President's Report

Volume 115, No. 12December, 2015

John O'Connor
John O'Connor is the recording vice president of Local 802 and the supervisor of the union's organizing, jazz and single engagement departments

John O’Connor is the recording vice president of Local 802 and the supervisor of the union’s organizing, jazz and single engagement departments

It’s no news that being a full-time musician is getting harder and harder. There are lots of different reasons for this, including the rapidly changing landscape of musical culture. I quit doing music full-time in 1996 as the market was being flooded by performing songwriters wanting to play in every nook and cranny of the coffeehouse and concert terrain. When I first got into the touring business, it was with a record deal with Flying Fish Records in the last few years that having a record actually meant something. It meant work. That was in the early 80s. By the end of the decade, everyone was making CDs on their own, the market was glutted and it was easy to get lost in the shuffle when it came to landing gigs.

What was I to do? The work started dropping. I lost my stomach for hustling gigs. I’d been a performing folksinger and songwriter for so long, I felt I had no other qualifications to start another career. But I did have experience with the labor movement and I had helped to create AFM Local 1000, the non-geographical local for touring solo acts and self-contained small ensembles on the folk scene (or what was left of it.) So when I saw an ad in the Nation for an organizer position open at Local 802, I applied for the job. In June 1996, Local 802 issued me a business card that said “Jazz Representative/Organizer.” A friend told me I had the sexiest job title in the city.

What I have learned over the past 20 years at the union has been incalculable. The music world I came from is vastly different than the world in which Local 802 members ply their living. I quickly gained a tremendous amount of respect for the hard-working, hard-hustling instrumentalist who can do just about anything with his or her ax. I was a bit in awe of the acrobatics required by the most talented musicians in the world, who went from Broadway to classical concerts to club dates to nightclubs to celebrity tours. My job was to try to make the professional musician’s life better and fairer. It was no easy task.

Among Local 802 President John Glasel’s first pronouncements when the Members Party was elected in 1982 was to bring fairness to jazz musicians working in the city’s nightclubs. The first victory was to get rid of the antiquated cabaret laws so it would be easier to work. The idea of getting pension benefits quickly followed and we have been fighting for it ever since. When I came to work for the union in the 90s, the idea was to step up the campaign a bit. I had been watching the Justice for Janitors movement in major cities across the country and I suggested calling our campaign Justice for Jazz Musicians. It was Jimmy Owens who suggested subbing the word “artist” for “musician” and the Justice for Jazz Artists (J4JA) campaign was born.

Our focus at that time was mostly on getting jazz leaders to sign collective bargaining agreements with Local 802 to provide pension benefits for themselves and their side musicians. We were modestly successful. Some of those I remember signing on were Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan, Billy Taylor and Blossom Dearie. Many others were to follow. We also organized the Count Basie Orchestra and achieved a collective bargaining agreement that provided for fair wages, working conditions and pension. We also got the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band to file union contracts. The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra became a cooperative and signed a contract with us, providing health and pension for all the cats in the band. But going through the bandleaders did not seem to me to be a good solution. There were just too many bands to talk to and persuade. The only real way to do this, I thought, was to follow the money and go after the clubs. One club equals 100 bandleaders.

I left Local 802 to work for the New York State Nurses Union in 2000, worked there for ten years, and got some real chops as an organizer. I kept up my membership in Local 802 and stayed on top of what was happening at the union during a difficult decade. When Tino Gagliardi called me in the summer of 2009 to ask me to run for vice president, I felt I could serve Local 802 well with my organizing experience. After thinking about his invitation for a couple of days, I told him I was interested. That was more than six years ago.

There are two things that are stunning about my two terms as an officer. One is the speed at which the time has passed. And the other is learning how complex a proposition it is, even for those of us who are in leadership positions, to make change in an institution like Local 802. During my time here, the union’s officers – including the members of the Executive Board – have been mostly of the same mind. We have done well in an era of labor’s shrinking influence to maintain our place in the music industry in New York City. It’s even more remarkable given that live music has been under attack for decades and continues to be. But I believe that I have done my best to do what I set out to do when I took office almost six years ago: to expand the influence of Local 802 by creating a bigger tent for musicians not historically served by this union while upholding the standards we have earned and fought for in the areas where we have held influence over the decades.

It has not been without disappointments. For instance, I had hoped that by the end of my second term we would have at least one major jazz nightclub under a union contract. I believe we are in striking distance of that – as I write this, we are in negotiations with Jazz at Lincoln Center, where a proposal has been put forward to cover every musician who works at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola. Over the years our organizing team has crunched the numbers and have busted the myth that the jazz clubs can’t afford this. We also embarked upon a successful campaign to pass a bill at City Hall supporting the objectives of Justice for Jazz Artists.

Jazz musicians and union staff were in high spirits after City Council voted to support Justice for Jazz Artists in October 2014.

Jazz musicians and union staff were in high spirits after City Council voted to support Justice for Jazz Artists in October 2014.

I want to make it clear that the J4JA campaign is not just about jazz. The victories of this campaign will lead to a better understanding of how we can organize power among all freelance musicians trying to make their living in the nightclubs and venues of New York and elsewhere. We broke the ice with two important agreements during my tenure here. One was the deal we achieved with the Winter Jazzfest, raising the wages for musicians in an increasingly influential festival. The second was the CBA that covers all musicians who play at 54 Below, the nightclub in midtown that features cabaret acts and Broadway singers. In the first instance, a grassroots effort by the musicians led to pressuring the presenters of the Winter Jazzfest to sit down and talk with the union. In the second, Local 802 used its union density to persuade the owners of 54 Below to meet with us. Both of these moves were bold and required a certain thinking outside the box to forge agreements that worked for those particular venues. It showed that the union could be tough and flexible at the same time.

In the meantime, we have been working to strengthen and widen musicians’ power in areas that we have held for decades. We continue our efforts in the so-called club date field to make sure musicians working for weddings, bar mitzvahs and other “society” functions are treated fairly. When I became vice president in 2010, hotels in New York City were jettisoning their live music in a depressing trend. But happily, the trend seems to be reversing and our organizers are bringing musicians together to fight for their rights not only in the hotels where Local 802 has for long held sway, but in new boutique hotels that never have had union agreements and where musicians who have had very little contact with the union are learning the lessons of collective power.

Our efforts to organize a contract at the Resorts World Casino have stumbled. We still have this as a goal, but we were naive when we agreed to contribute to a campaign to allow more casinos in the state, thinking that we would gain influence with the state AFL-CIO and the governor’s office in order to get union agreements for musicians in the casinos. We have learned that after all is said and done, we are on our own here. The fight is far from over but, hopefully we have learned that throwing our money at strange bedfellows is a questionable strategy.

I’m leaving the union at a very exciting time. I have hugely mixed emotions about my departure. While I am eager to return to a life of performing and writing, the sense that I have not finished what I came to do is a bit overwhelming. But I am extremely optimistic, knowing my office will be entrusted with dedicated, hardworking, talented and intelligent people. My successor Andy Schwartz and I have been meeting together for weeks working on a smooth transition, and I know Andy will do an excellent job. Andy has been a big supporter of the initiatives that the Organizing Department has been working on over the years. He’s always been willing to roll up his sleeves and pitch in, and he has been invaluable to me in a consulting capacity. And he has independently been working on initiatives that will help connect Local 802 and the AFM to important organizations that are working on parallel tracks to bring justice to performing musicians and composers.

Andy will be aided by our terrific director of organizing, Maggie Russell-Brown, who was hired just over a year ago. Maggie has been fundamental in rebuilding our Organizing Department with principles she brought with her from her vast experience in other parts of the labor movement. The organizing team has been talking to an unprecedented number of musicians in this city, both union members and future union members. The results have been exciting and promising.

I want to take this opportunity to thank my staff, who have been loyal and hardworking in supporting my vision and style and who have helped to move Local 802 forward to a future of justice and fairness for all musicians in New York City and beyond.

I want to thank the Local 802 Executive Board, who have always been intelligent, honest, forward thinking and independent, and who have supported me along the way in this often quite difficult position.

I’m grateful to the members who I have gotten to know over the years. It has been such a great pleasure to know so many talented musicians. Most of those who voted for me when I first ran for office did not know who I was, and it has been a humbling and gratifying experience to have you put your trust in me. That trust is something that I have never taken for granted.

Lastly, I want to thank Local 802 President Tino Gagliardi, who put his trust in me back in the summer of 2009, when he made a phone call to me to ask me to consider running for office with him. Tino and I have worked so closely together that I have often joked about our relationship resembling a bad marriage. But it’s been a good marriage, really. We have relied on each other’s strength, counsel and camaraderie and have enjoyed collaborating to make Local 802 the best union it can be.

Though I am leaving my employment as a full-time officer of Local 802, I will remain an active and participating member. I will miss you all, for certain. But I won’t be far away.