Not Just an Art, But a Job

Successes and Rewards of Organizing Music Teachers

Volume CIV, No. 5May, 2004

Joe Eisman

According to the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics Union Members Summary Report (Jan. 21, 2004), the percentage of unionized workers in the private sector plunged again in 2003 to just 8 percent — half of what it was only 20 years ago. Declining union density in the private sector has led to a decline in the growth of real wages, an increase in the number of uninsured workers, and a diminished role for labor in the political sphere.

Union density within a particular field also has a large and tangible effect on the prevailing pay, benefits and conditions in that field. (For complete data on the substantial impact of unionization on wages, benefits, and workplace protections, see “How Unions Help all Workers,” Lawrence Mishel with Matthew Walter, Economic Policy Institute, August 2003.)

For most of the past 25 years, the field of music education has been virtually 100 percent unorganized. As a result, most teachers worked for little pay, and no benefits.

Prior to the budget cuts in the 1970’s, there had been several thousand full-time music teachers in the New York City public schools. As members of the American Federation of Teachers, they received decent wages, job security, and full health and pension benefits. Gradually, the city phased out most of these full-time teachers, and started to subcontract music education from private agencies, all of which operated nonunion.

In addition to these organizations, there are a few dozen community arts schools and private music colleges that provide music education to the public, and most of these institutions are also unorganized.

To address this low union density, over the past six years, Local 802 has successfully run a half-dozen aggressive organizing campaigns, and now represents over 300 teachers. Many of these teachers were already union members, and they benefited from the health and pension contributions called for in their new contracts. Dozens more joined Local 802 as a result of the successful campaigns.

Every contract calls for increases in pay, some measure of health and pension benefits, and increased job security.

However, there are scores of schools that remain unorganized, and the overall union density in the field of music education remains low.

Low union density in an industry tends to contribute to greater employer opposition to union organizing. The union’s relative strength, and ability to raise overall standards on an unlevel playing field, is diminished, and employers believe they have a lot to lose if their employees unionize.

In the field of music education, employers have vociferously resisted Local 802’s organizing drives.

At the Kaufman Center, for example, the administration, emboldened by a low union density in the field, and aware of the fact that unionization would force them to provide decent raises, job security and benefits, spent nearly $1 million (unsuccessfully) fighting its teachers’ efforts to unionize.

With strong employer opposition to unionization, and perhaps 1,000 or more unorganized music teachers in New York City, we have our work cut out for us. However, the rewards of organizing music educators are tremendous — better pay and benefits for the teachers, reduced turnover and the ability to retain and attract the most qualified teachers for the schools, greater quality and consistency for the students, and a stronger union for us. And, organizing teachers provides students, many of whom eventually will become Local 802 members, with a positive, concrete example of how unions help workers.

By increasing the union density in this field, we will attract new members, and ensure that a new generation of teachers is afforded the pay, benefits and job security they deserve. Without union contracts, many teachers will be forced to leave their noble profession, and work various “day jobs” in order to survive. This would be a loss for the teachers, the students, Local 802 and society as a whole.

For more information on organizing teachers, contact the Organizing Department at (212) 245-4802, ext. 191.

Joe Eisman is the director of 802’s Organizing Department.