Occupy the Music: The Sound of Justice

Volume 112, No. 5May, 2012

Shane Gasteyer

The history of organized labor is filled with music. Beginning with songs sung on picket lines by striking workers, music has always been a force for organized action. In times of struggle, it has provided a shared experience, inspiring and motivating people to seek change through collaboration and solidarity.

Music has always had the power to bridge the distances between individual people, and musicians have often demonstrated this power within the labor movement, building support and unity among and between different groups of people.

The relationship between music and organized labor has not been one-sided. The labor movement has long been a source of strength for musicians.

For over 100 years, musicians have drawn on organized labor to address their professional needs and to build solidarity among their fellow artists.

In recent months, Local 802 members have been working to show these connections at home in New York City.

Beginning last fall with the Occupy Wall Street protests, Local 802 and AFM members have brought their music to the streets, joining the call for social change and organized labor in New York City and across the United States.

This movement has since gone global. Among the supporters of the effort have been a wide variety of activists committed to addressing the issues of economic inequality and workers’ rights. Vocal among them are labor unions and music and arts organizations.

Since its inception, music has been an integral part of Occupy Wall Street.

With a constant presence of drummers, jam sessions and several marching bands at most every rally, musicians have been staples at the movement’s actions.

Many high-profile performers, including several AFM members, have also lent their voices to the movement and sought to bolster the morale of tired and embattled protestors in Zuccotti Park.

Among the countless musicians who visited protesters were Local 47’s David Crosby and Tom Morello, and Local 802 member Rufus Wainwright.

Legendary activist and Local 802 member Pete Seeger attended a rally at Columbus Circle, joined by fellow Local 802 member David Amram along with Arlo Guthrie, a member of Local 1000.

Support also came from musicians outside of the rock and folk realms.

After a performance of his work “Satyagraha” at the Metropolitan Opera in December, composer Phillip Glass participated in an “Occupy Lincoln Center” event.

Musicians from all over the world have also expressed their solidarity with the movement through the Web site of Occupy Musicians ( Through it, musicians can show their support and organizers can coordinate performances for certain Occupy events.

Aside from providing inspiration and music for Occupy Wall Street, there are also many musicians who see great potential for the movement to address the needs of musicians as part of a larger economic justice movement.

With this goal in mind, a group of musicians created the Musicians Solidarity Council (, “an autonomous group in affinity with Occupy Wall Street and the labor movement at large.”

The group seeks to engage more musicians in Occupy Wall Street, while bringing light to the issues that musicians face professionally.

“We are as much of the ‘99 percent’ as anyone,” said Local 802 member Michele Smith, who is also a member of the Musicians Solidarity Council.

Smith added, “Working with [Occupy Wall Street] is our opportunity to engage a wider audience in the difficulties of being able to make a livelihood at our craft.”

As many musicians have been hit hard by the various financial crises of recent years, they have a stake in any movement that seeks to address the needs of the economically disadvantaged in the United States.

“It has become increasingly difficult for musicians to make their living in NYC over the last 20 to 30 years,” composer and Local 802 member Norman Yamada told Allegro. “One of the questions we hope the Musicians Solidarity Council will address is how we can encourage musicians to work together to address some of our common issues, like fair pay in clubs and fair pay for the use of our music.”

Yamada has been involved in both the Noise Action Coalition and Take It To The Bridge, groups that have fought for musicians’ rights in various lower Manhattan venues. He says he has seen the positive results of musician organizing first hand.

Like many others, Yamada sees the involvement of musicians in Occupy Wall Street as part of the larger history of music and labor.

“If you look back,” Yamada said, “there have been many times when the labor movement brought awareness to musicians, resulting in things like the AFM strikes in the 40’s to get better royalties for recording artists.”

It’s not just individual musicians who have gotten involved in the Occupy movement.

For instance, the Rude Mechanical Orchestra is a full ensemble. Its self-stated mission is to bring music and joy to protests, demonstrations, direct actions, picket lines, marches, benefits and events for good causes.

The group has provided music and chant support at Occupy events and has also supported traditional labor struggles, like the Verizon workers’ recent strike.

Much as in the past, musicians have a place in the struggle for economic justice in the United States.

By bringing their message to the Occupy movement and other social and economic movements, musicians are bringing people together with music and joining their voices to the call for change.

On May Day, as Allegro goes to press, Local 802 and the Musicians Solidarity Council will be marching and playing in a number of events. Look for coverage in the next issue.