The Year in Organizing (or at least the past 6 months)

Notes from the field

Volume 123, No. 1January, 2023

John Pietaro

The Organizing Department is working with the musicians of the DCINY orchestra to win a fair contract

Since starting my job as organizing director of Local 802 in June 2022, much has developed. Entering the building on 48th Street each day has been a confirmation on why this position found me. In the past months, we’ve fully re-opened, and anytime I head down the stairs from my third-floor office, the music of our membership is flowing. This is not only a statement on the highlight of sounds but a re-affirmation that the union is back! Whenever possible, I’ve stopped into rehearsals in the Club Room and Room B to touch base with the musicians and listen. Reviewing the many special moments so far, now at the turn of a new year, I recognized the chance to write about our advances in general and on the focus of our Organizing Department.

Building our Organizing Department

Very soon after coming aboard, Recording Vice President Harvey Mars and I made plans to hire an organizer. Many of you have already met Cheryl Brandon, whose also made regular visits to the rehearsals downstairs as well as many venues, speaking to members and non-members alike. She’s also been highly present leading chants at our pickets. No wonder: Cheryl has a sizeable union history as lead organizer with UNITE-HERE before coming to 802. Cheryl is also a published poet with stage experience in hip hop as well as stand-up comedy. Expect to see her at a workplace near you.

Contract negotiations

During my 20+ years of work in the labor movement, I’ve spent much time in negotiations of every kind, so I welcome the opportunity to engage in contract negotiations alongside Harvey and our business reps. So far, we’ve been very busy in bargaining for the DCINY orchestra, the New School jazz faculty, the Winter Jazz Festival musicians, and our many single-engagement club date members, among others. Other contracts in our immediate view are those at 54 Below, Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Carlyle, the Pierre and Plaza hotels, the Apollo, and several Long Island theatres. In some cases, on the way to securing a fair contract, the Organizing Department has been central to actions of many kinds, from rallies, placard-making and public statements to management walk-ins.

Internal organizing

A large part of my job is working to unify our current membership, by staging events and writing literature to strengthen and fortify, and to seek out opportunities in which membership can become more and more active. I work closely with our staff on events such as the monthly 802 Jazz Nights, thus far staged in November and December. Quite different than the past weekly jam sessions sponsored by the Jazz Foundation, the current 802 Jazz Nights celebrate the music and spotlight celebrated feature artists — Buster Williams’ and Rachel Z’s trios in November and December, respectively. Following inspiring featured performances, we hold a real old-school jam. The union intends to keep these events going and I must add that few probably enjoy them more than I. This month, the feature will be Dick Griffin, in February we’ll have an African American History special with Ronnie Burrage, and in March 802 will celebrate Women’s History (feature artist TBA). Further, Jazz Nights are always free and open to the public.

Beyond events like our 802 Jazz Nights and the recent holiday party, I’ve also engaged in wide outreach to the area’s new music/free jazz/indie music community, and recently founded a New Music Committee (bringing quite a few new members up from the underground, so to speak). We plan to have a meeting in the Club Room before the month is out in which the new committee can discuss the considerable growth of experimental music in NYC and seek potential opportunities for activism, actions and ultimately, contracts.

Another part of internal organizing is the chance to include our members in the Music for the Soul program of the NYC Health and Hospitals. They’re hiring small groups in many genres to perform in the lobbies of municipal hospitals, Harlem, King County, Queens, Elmhurst and Jacobi. With a distinct eye toward a band’s music style and its racial/gender/age composition, we strive for balance when recommending musicians to the program’s directors. Thus far, the program’s been highly successful. Let us know if you’re becoming a part of this service to the community.

In addition to these items, internal organizing also incorporates field visits to the venues, colleges and other sites where our members work, often in tandem with business reps. Our area is widespread, to be sure, but we’ve been increasingly making visits to orchestra pits, nightclubs, green rooms, studios, bars and theatres, touching base with members between sets or after sound check, but always before the downbeat.

Further, I’ve enjoyed getting to know and work with some leaders of the Recording Musicians of America, a strong advocacy organization (technically a players’ conference) working alongside the AFM to bring justice to studio musicians, or any regularly confronted with the overall matter of streaming and archives. We had one successful meeting in the Club Room (also broadcast remotely) a couple of months back and are planning on regular follow-ups

New organizing

Growing the union is our primary function and while I cannot list specific organizing targets in public communications, my research on numerous nonunion orchestras and venues, not the least of which are the casinos about to be licensed throughout the area, is ongoing.

Frequently, we are contacted by members who are offered so-called “dark” or “off the card” dates and we seek communication with other hires to work toward a contract. Easier said than done because musicians are obviously anxious about being cited as activists by management, but we’ve kept a close watch on exploitive contractors or leaders. I’ve personally travelled as far as Bethel Woods, deep into Sullivan County, to follow leads, and slowly such efforts are bearing fruit. With a small staff and many duties, Organizing has had to choose carefully, but those I’ve deemed “vampire contractors” should never feel safe. Once our current negotiations are complete, I look forward to prioritizing these campaigns. But, by all means, reach out to me if you’ve been performing with under such rogue leaders and want respect, representation, fair pay and all of the deeply relevant aspects of a contract, please be in touch! If you’re playing a gig where you’re not earning the wages and benefits you deserve, contact us. And before taking a gig, keep an eye on our Unfair List.

Another example is our annual Membership Drive. This was my first as a staff member and during it we focused much attention on the indie musicians I’ve often collaborated with over the years, those in experimental music, indie rock and all other areas the industry would call non-commercial. Happily, we are building a solid foundation in this field, and more and more are joining.

The idea of growing the union isn’t only done through formal means, but much can be accomplished rather informally as well. 802 Jazz Nights, among other events, are open to the public in which we offer information about the union and ample opportunity for non-members to become members. These are designed as vehicles for both current members and those considering membership.

This goes for visits to nightclubs and other performance spaces where some of the musicians may not be 802 members. It’s our job to get to know these folks and try to understand their particular situations and needs. Along this line, we are planning to do tabling at many of the colleges specializing in professional music studies, as well as making presentations at same. There’s also been outreach to community organizations and high schools that focus on the arts where we expect to establish partnerships.

As 2023 progresses, I am certain we will have many opportunities to be in touch with you and get a closer look at your work. Each day brings new opportunities to not only grow the union but reach out to musicians — cultural workers—of every stripe.

See you in the trenches!

Organizing Director John Pietaro can be reached through the Local 802 Organizing Department’s page at