President’s Report

Organize or Die

Volume CIX, No. 5May, 2009

Mary Landolfi

I got an e-mail from our controller, Ira Goldman, several days ago. It was a two-sentence message: “What can be done about a membership drive? Numbers are declining.”

Ira is looking at the problem of declining membership from purely a financial point of view. Fewer members means fewer dollars coming in to the treasury; in a year in which work dues have been severely affected by the recession, he is worried about running at a deficit. We are fortunate to have a professional watching our finances during this downturn.

Some members, however, would not agree with Ira that we need to increase the size of our membership in order to remain strong.

On more than one occasion in the 15 years since I first became an officer I have heard the opinion expressed that we need to let the membership shrink until we reach some kind of equilibrium between jobs and members. “Once the membership is the right size, there will be enough work to go around,” is one way it has been phrased.

In my opinion this is tremendously misguided.

First, an army of well-trained people graduate from conservatories every year; if we allow them to become a nonunion army of replacement workers, we are finished. 

Equally important is the fact that the entertainment industry is not diminishing; instead, it is the areas of the industry that we control which are shrinking. I’ve probably made that point here before; if we are going to continue to act as a strong voice on behalf of musicians we have to represent workers throughout the industry, not just in a few lucrative pockets of activity that were organized many years ago. Becoming a shrinking island of highly paid work in a sea of underpaid activity makes us very vulnerable.

There is another aspect that needs to be considered as well, though, and that is our pension fund, which is vitally important to all of us.

As it stands now, because we do not represent every musician working, we have a diminishing number of active members contributing to the fund.

In point of fact, there is the equivalent of 0.99 active musicians for every 1 pensioner according to the most recent information I have seen about the fund.

Another way to put this is that for every 100 musicians drawing a pension, there are 99 musicians who are contributing to the pension fund. And if we fail to organize in newer areas of the entertainment industry and bring younger people into the union, that statistic will grow more negative. 

Let me explain more thoroughly. 

Our pension fund works on the basis of a monthly multiplier. No matter when contributions are made, whether when you are 20 or when you are 64, you get the same return on a monthly basis.

Obviously, it is impossible for a $100 contribution made just before you retire to grow enough to provide the benefit; it is the contributions made over your working life (and particularly when you are younger) that have the opportunity to grow enough to sustain the payout when you retire. 

Although a responsibly run fund will continue to pay benefits, allowing the demographics of pension fund participants to age creates more downward pressure on the multiplier.

There is only one way around this dilemma and it requires the same cure that will fix our declining membership. We have to organize new work and new workers. That will mean challenging old assumptions and accepting difficult compromises until we can once again represent every working musician throughout the country.