What I learned from my “field trips” in 2015 and how it will help make us a more powerful union
Several times each year, union leaders at Local 802 are given opportunities to travel beyond our walls in order to gain some additional education and engage with our national AFM colleagues and the wider national labor movement. These field trips always provide valuable insights.
In February, Martha Hyde and I went to Orlando to attend a series of classes presented by the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans, which teaches labor leaders about the immensely complicated world of health plans and pensions. Martha and I went as trustees of the Local 802 Musicians Health Fund. Even though Disney World was close by, we didn’t see much of Mickey or Snow White, but did see maybe too many attorneys, accountants and actuaries (anyone still awake?). Considering the dry subject matter, the presentations were terrifically informative and even amusing at times. These plans are complicated and our task is to make sure that we are complying with the relevant laws. The presentation I attended made the details a bit easier to understand and reminded us of the best practices.
What turned out to be the most fascinating part was that we were thrown in with representatives from unions representing NFL football players, teachers, electricians, laborers and so on, from every nook of American life. While unions may be under attack nationally, there remain millions of members, each sector with problems comparable to the others, each representing a stunning diversity of individuals and interests. The union leaders sitting together in those rather large rooms were all seeking a way to serve their members in a better way. When I sit in an office back in NYC, I don’t often remember the reality of how large and diverse the labor movement is. This necessary and dry training turned into an entirely different kind of personal experience.
Trip number two was to Las Vegas. The Locals’ Conference Council and the Players’ Conference Council always meet with the International Executive Board in years where there is no national AFM convention. This year’s persistent topics concerned attempts to make the AFM more efficient in communication and finances, the problem of integrating younger musicians into our union, and ways to avoid the race to the bottom in wages and benefits, which afflicts all workers and unions, not just the AFM.
My final destination this year was, by far, the most fascinating one. Every year Cornell Unversity’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations partners with the AFL-CIO to present the Union Leadership Institute. For many years, Local 802 has sent Executive Board members, union reps and officers. All have reported very positive responses. Now I know why.
The program takes you away from the nicely-defined world of Local 802 and sends you into the wider labor world. All of a sudden, you are side-by-side with construction workers, maintenance personnel, teachers, transit and subway employees, nursing home attendants and more. As the week progresses, it becomes clear that the concerns of these hard-working unionists are the same or very similar to those of Local 802 members. Participants are put through a dizzying array of interpersonal exercises, ranging from one-on-one interviews on various subjects to impromptu group exercises. We also get put on the spot. We may be asked to describe our union’s larger economic and societal positioning, or pitch a pet project to a group, having been given 15 minutes to concoct a two-minute spiel. Then everyone who hears it provides a critique. Participants are also taken out to the woods (literally!) and given challenging physical problems, requiring cooperation, leadership and deference to the local experts in your group.
It’s all specifically designed to take you out of your comfort zone and force you to improvise strategies, make alliances, take initiative and behave in ways you are not accustomed to. I emerged with a sense of my limitations and strengths, and a heightened ability to express – and maybe even execute – a wider vision than the one I arrived with.
The other real takeaway is that we in the labor movement have more similarities than differences. Our problems are similar and our core missions are identical: help our members achieve a viable and honorable working life. As distant as that reality may seem at times, all union members should recognize that the larger similarities and unified mission are what give the labor movement what strength it currently has. This unity can and should provide a foundation for a more effective future, and it should give us hope.