Reaching for the STARs – Latino Musicians Win a Voice@Work

AFM in the Press

Volume CII, No. 4April, 2002

Laureen Lazarovici

AFM members are already aware of the landmark victory won by Latino musicians last fall, when, after a decade-long campaign, the five top Latin recording companies signed on to the phono agreement. The AFM’s STAR campaign was the cover story in the March issue of America@Work, the AFL-CIO’s monthly magazine. The text of the article appears below:

When Tejano music sensation Selena released what would be her last CD, “Dreaming of You,” the album was released jointly by two recording companies, EMI Records and EMI Latin. As with many artists on the verge of “crossing over” from Latin music to pop, Selena recorded some songs in English and others in Spanish. But the mix of languages masked a deeper division: The musicians who played English-language songs worked under an industry-wide union contract that provides health benefits, pension funding and access to royalties. Those performing Spanish-language songs weren’t covered by the contract and didn’t get any benefits.

This kind of economic discrimination, widespread in the music industry, galvanized a campaign by the American Federation of Musicians of the United States and Canada to launch Support Tejano Advancement in Recording, STAR. While Latin music sales have skyrocketed from $260 million in 1995 to $608 million in 2000, the musicians who play the horns, drums, guitars and other instruments that drive the south-of-the-border sounds were not sharing the fruits of this success. Musicians might be paid a fixed fee per song – whether it took one hour or five days to record. They didn’t have a union contract requiring record companies to contribute to a pension fund.

In September, after a four-year public campaign and nearly a decade of union organizing, AFM activists convinced the top Latin recording companies to sign on to the 60-year-old industrywide recording contract. Now, these musicians will get fair wages and benefits such as health insurance payments and pensions, as well as a share of record sales. The agreement covers thousands of musicians, most of them in Texas and Florida.

“We will continue to fight until all musicians who work in the profitable Latin market enjoy the same opportunities to earn a living wage while enriching the cultural heritage of our country,” says Tom Lee, AFM president.

The STAR campaign began in 1997, when organizers reached out to musicians and discussed problems they faced when working under nonunion contracts on Latin recordings. Organizers talked with musicians who dropped by the AFM office in San Antonio to pick up checks for their work – covered by a strong union contract – on radio commercial jingles. Many of the same musicians sometimes worked on Latin music recordings without benefits of a union contract, says Mike Muniz, AFM’s director of Latin organizing. The union recruited a core group of activists who, in turn, enlisted other musicians across the country; from Los Angeles to Miami. “This is nontraditional organizing,” says Muniz, noting that the workers don’t have one worksite or employer – or standard work schedules. “Musicians sometimes record in the middle of the night,” he says.

Union leaders conducted their research in record stores. “We would buy CDs and look at who was working on Sony Discos and EMI Latin recordings,” says Muniz. “Then we’d assign committee members to contact people they knew or had recorded with.”

Like many unions that implement the AFL-CIO Voice@Work strategy, the AFM involved community members and elected officials in the struggle for workers’ rights. Musicians visited congressional lawmakers to win their support and spoke on panels at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’ issues conference in Washington, D.C.

In 1999, elected officials were among the panelists at a San Antonio Jobs with Justice Workers’ Rights Board hearing, a forum in which community leaders gather to hear workers discuss the difficulties they face in winning a voice at work. The board released a report based on musicians’ testimony about unfair treatment.

Support for the STAR campaign spread among representatives in Congress and state legislatures from Texas, California and Arizona, with the Texas House of Representatives passing a resolution supporting the musicians’ efforts for justice. “The members of Congress listened and helped us,” says Miami saxophonist Ed Calle, who has recorded with such musical icons as Frank Sinatra and Placido Domingo. “They are doing the right thing.”

Marshaling the unique talents of the activists, union leaders integrated music into their campaign. At a news conference prior to the September hearing in San Antonio, musicians started with a “moment of sound,” a tuneful alternative to an opening prayer or moment of silence. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (D-Texas) joined them on his accordion. A band of organizing committee members – the STARlites – played at union functions throughout the campaign, building support. Musicians jammed together on a “justice bus” tour during summer 2000, part of the AFL-CIO’s 7 Days in June campaign to shine a spotlight on employer opposition to workers’ desires to form unions. The tour included a stop for a rally at Sony’s corporate offices in San Antonio.

“We are extremely grateful to the community and labor leaders who began to work with us in 1996 to identify the issues and raise the consciousness of the public and the musicians. We also are grateful to the members of the Workers’ Rights Board who investigated and reported on these issues in 1999,” says Lee, who also recognized the support of lawmakers in the campaign.


The STAR campaign made its breakthrough in early September, just as the Congressional Hispanic Caucus was planning a hearing in San Antonio about the difficulties faced by musicians who record Latin music. Although BMG Latin and Universal Latin had signed the industrywide union contract several years ago, the remaining three of the “Big Five” Latin recording companies – EMI Latin, WEA Latina and Sony Discos – were holding out. Because of union activists’ strong coalition with key members of Congress, they won sufficient support to call the hearing. The possibility of heightened political and public scrutiny convinced company executives to come to the table.

At the hearing, musicians described their unequal treatment. “Major record companies would set up ‘satellite’ companies, so anyone who worked on Hispanic music got paid less and got no pension benefits,” says Calle. While the big recording companies abided by the industrywide contract for their mainstream recordings, they would claim their Latin labels were separate entities and didn’t have to follow the same rules. “Our workforce needs to be educated about the benefits of having a union contract, so when they retire they can have some dignity,” he says.

“I understand that, for musicians, their performance is a labor of love,” said Rep. Rodriguez at the Sept. 8 hearing, which he held with fellow Texas Democratic representatives Solomon Ortiz and Charlie Gonzalez at the San Antonio City Hall. “But it is also a way of surviving, their bread and butter. They deserve to be treated in a way that’s appropriate.”

AFL-CIO Executive Vice-President Linda Chavez-Thompson, along with Texas AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Emmett Sheppard, spoke in support of the workers and celebrated their victory. “For Tejano recording artists who work for Latin record labels and the Big Five, the agreement will now make a world of difference,” said Chavez-Thompson.

Today, when these workers record for the “Big Five” Latin labels, in addition to the artistic satisfaction that comes from entertaining music lovers, they will experience the benefits – including dignity and security – of a union contract. “I’ve worked under union contracts in Los Angeles for commercials,” before moving to San Antonio, says Tejano trumpet player Rene Gasca. “I know the difference a union contract makes.”