Moving forward

New year offers challenges and opportunities for union musicians

Volume 113, No. 1January, 2013

John O'Connor
Justice for Jazz

The union’s jazz campaign was in full force last year. Above, musicians march on jazz clubs in October. Photo: Nick Porter.

Looking back on my first term in office as Recording Vice President, I am struck by how quickly time has passed and how much time it takes to accomplish goals the union has set for itself. The two greatest tasks before us – organizing and promoting live music in New York – are monumental unto themselves, but taken together the hill becomes even steeper. Nevertheless, we are definitely climbing that hill.

We have been working for the past few months on an initiative to expand Local 802’s referral service through a plan of promotion and advertising. We believe the referral service can put more musicians to work if we develop a business model that creates more demand. As we proceed, in addition to using the many fine musicians who are now in Local 802 available for single engagements, we are reaching out to nonunion bands in the city who would want to become part of the effort and join the union. We are confident that through this strategy, we will create more supply and demand for the referral service.

Recently we have added an organizer to our staff. This has allowed us to better focus on a few areas that are of importance to the union. As far as organizing goes, the single engagement had been stagnant for many years until 2010. That’s when we were able to add to our list of single engagement signatories Element Music, a growing single engagement employer. Now we are focusing on at least two other nonunion employers of single engagement musicians, and prospects of organizing are promising.

Another area where we are concentrating efforts is at the Resorts World Casino, where musicians have shown an interest in receiving the protections, wages and benefits that a union contract can offer. Though we are researching how many of the musicians who work at the casino are part of self-contained acts or employed directly by the casino, we are confident that an agreement would be possible that would cover everyone. Local 802 has covered both circumstances within a single contract in the past.

The union has faced for many decades the obstacle of organizing various venues because the venues claim not to be the employer of the musicians. The argument has always seemed specious to me. The venue hires a band and charges admission and makes a profit. The pay to the musician may pass through the leader or the contractor, but if you follow the money, it only makes sense that the bargaining relationship in most cases belongs between the venue and the union. The Justice for Jazz Artists campaign has been grappling with this issue for some time. In the end, the union’s position is that the nightclubs must take the responsibility of ensuring fairness to musicians.

We can apply this same logic to venues who hire bands as part of a music series or on a regular basis. Places such as BAM, Joe’s Pub and Lincoln Center’s American Songbook have the resources to treat musicians fairly and offer a certain standard of pay and benefits that only a union contract can provide. The union wants to continue moving in this direction and using whatever leverage is at its disposal to provide musicians everywhere with union standards and protections.

As to venues with fewer resources, organizing presents a much more complicated challenge. A great many musicians who are in the indie scenes of downtown, Brooklyn and other areas in which Local 802 has not traditionally held sway, are unfamiliar with the union or know little about it. At best, they see Local 802 as mainly irrelevant to them. We have, over the past couple of years, made inroads to this community through the efforts of activists in the indie jazz scene and through our organizing of the Winter Jazzfest and the Undead Jazz Festival. Because of our work in this community, hundreds of musicians for the very first time have benefited from wage scales negotiated by the union.

In December, Justice for Jazz Artists finished its first phase of a renewed campaign that began a year ago. With the new year, we are stepping up efforts to bring more musicians into the campaign and to increase pressure on the major jazz clubs to come to the table. Whereas in the first phase we concentrated on a regular presence in front of the Blue Note and other clubs, advertising, garnering support on Facebook (we have almost 50,000 “likes”) and continued outreach to side musicians, artists and leaders, the next phase will include deepening the involvement in the campaign by respected jazz artists, using political allies and exploring economic pressure points to persuade the clubs to come to the table. It is unlikely we will ultimately be successful if we can’t credibly threaten to hurt the clubs’ bottom lines.

I have maintained that efforts we have made at Local 802 in leveraging venues that refuse to bargain with the union claiming not to be the employer must be made on a wider level and eventually fuse into a national campaign. Successes in New York will embolden other musician union locals in other cities and regions to launch similar campaigns, coordinating efforts with the AFM. With this in mind, I organized, with the help of Ray Hair and the AFM an organizing summit that took place on Sept. 17 in the Local 802 Club Room. In attendance were officers from at least eight different local unions, Local 802 organizers and AFM leadership and staff. Paul Frank, the former director of organizing for the AFM, conducted a training session on union organizing and leverage campaigns. The summit was a success and plans are underfoot to repeat the session at the Western regional conference of locals in Portland next February.

There has never been a time that has been more challenging to our work and our union. Yet, I think it can honestly be said that the leadership in both the AFM and Local 802 has never been more up to the task of facing the adversity of a changing world. We will need the talents, brains and hands of hundreds of musicians in leadership roles and in the ranks of the work place to reach success in the areas I have discussed above. But I have no doubt it will happen. All we need is the will and the organizing chops to do the job.