On the Move

Recording Vice-President's Report

Volume 113, No. 4April, 2013

John O'Connor

The AFM gets serious about organizing – and what that means for our jazz campaign

I was recently in Portland for the Western Conference of AFM Locals where Paul Frank, the AFM’s new director of organizing, conducted a full-day version of the workshop he led last fall here at Local 802. The room was full of AFM local officers and delegates who were eager to hear Paul’s message and who joined in the conversation on how locals can use organizing principles to keep their bargaining units strong and how they can organize new ones. In a time of increased hostility toward symphonies across the country, the organizing tools being discussed were acutely relevant.

Frank showed a video on the celebrated strike against Seattle’s Fifth Avenue Theatre in 1997. The theatre musicians’ committee had begun preparing for negotiations a year ahead of talks, anticipating management’s demands for concessions. By the time management hit them with proposed wage cuts and other take-aways, the union musicians were ready.

Through their organizing and outreach to the local labor council and Jobs with Justice chapter, thousands of supporters showed up in the streets for days on end, while the musicians held fast, not only holding back concessions but demanding improvements in their contract.

The strike and accompanying protests were a brilliant success and the video is nothing short of inspirational. The kind of success that the Seattle musicians had is unusual, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Disney was the employer, after all, and they are no easy foe. And yet the musicians won a decisive victory. The video serves as a lesson on how to put together all the ingredients that increase the chances for success; planning ahead, building solidarity, capitalizing on the public’s love for musicians, researching the employer, building an escalating plan of action.

These are the kinds of organizing building blocks that have not always been used by the AFM or its locals. But under the leadership of President Ray Hair, the necessity of looking at workable organizing strategies is now fully on the table. Hiring Paul Frank as an organizing director is a good start. Frank was at the Federation when he led the successful campaign to get Tejano recordings under contract in what was known as the STAR campaign.

Local 802 is quite adept at top-down organizing, using our union density to leverage contracts where our musicians are needed to put on a musical event. When an artist comes to the Beacon Theatre, for example, and hires an orchestra made up of Local 802 members, there is little doubt we are going to have the engagement under contract. As we go to press, we are attempting to forge an agreement with 54 Below, the new cabaret-style club that has opened up beneath the Roundabout Theatre. Local 802 has almost 100 percent union density there, so the club can’t hope to operate without musicians being covered by union agreements.

More unusual for Local 802 is organizing an employer who doesn’t employ a majority of Local 802 musicians and who doesn’t operate within our sphere of influence. That’s the situation we have with the six jazz clubs that are the current target of the Justice For Jazz Artists campaign. The tools that we use to organize these clubs are the same that were used during the Seattle theatre strike: planning ahead, building solidarity, capitalizing on the public’s love for musicians, researching the employer, and building an escalating plan of action.

As we move further toward organizing non-union members in other fields of music where we don’t currently hold sway, we will need to have these tools ready and well oiled.

How does a folksinger and songwriter express his appreciation for jazz in what the Smithsonian has named Jazz Appreciation Month?

I didn’t grow up in a place where jazz was prominent like it was in New York City, though I certainly was in my formative years when jazz had established itself in respect to the bop era. But I was too immersed with exploring Appalachian string band music, IWW songs and the protest song movement of the times. (The only exception was a Sonny Rollins record I would occasionally listen to at night sitting on the floor in a darkened room.)

I didn’t come to jazz until I started to work for Local 802 in the late 90s. It was ironic to be talking to my jazz-fan friend back in the Midwest. I was just learning what this music meant while I was meeting with greats like Ron Carter and Hank Jones about signing leader contracts with Local 802.

My friend was green with envy. I’d say something like, “Do you know who Tommy Flanagan is? I just spoke with him last night…”, and I could hear the thud on the other end of the phone as my pal fell over, stunned. Meanwhile I was being stunned by this music I had previously neglected.

I remember doing a couple of gigs with Bob Cranshaw, who so graciously agreed to play with me, and as I heard him playing behind me and anticipating the chord changes on a song he had not previously heard with such precision and inventiveness, I thought, “Can this guy read my mind?” Of course, this wasn’t jazz. The only thing improvisational about me is my own eccentric sense of timing. It can drive a bass player crazy. But a musician like Bob knows how to handle a guy like me.

To be confessional, I have much regret for not having known this world when I was coming into my own musical interests. I speak to musicians and jazz fans my age who were in New York at the time and I shake my head at the thought of myself living in Iowa without a clue.

But all music is related to other music. And I know that the musician and songwriter I am came only from my own experiences and personal history. One of the first songs I learned to sing and play was “St. James Infirmary.” I had no idea at the time it was in the jazz lexicon. I knew I loved the song and the tune, which had morphed through the years and the continents from an old English ballad. I don’t know where I learned the song. In fact, I can’t even remember learning it.

But in retrospect, that is perhaps where my appreciation of jazz first came from. Not that I was singing and playing the song as a jazz tune, but that the lyrical sense of the song affected me in the same way it affected jazz musicians who chose to add it to their repertoire. The improvisational swing of jazz can translate the poetry in the lyric of a song like “St. James Infirmary” into the powerful non-verbal language of music.

America has a Jazz Appreciation Month because we are so proud that it is distinctly American. A folkie should be able to understand that. Our music comes from that same American center of adversity, hard times and tragedy expressed in the beauty of music.