In the late 19th century, musicians in New York formed the Musical Mutual Protective Union to attempt to create fair prices for musical services. As the union grew, the strength to enforce prices grew with it. Of course, it was a vastly different world for musicians, long before the dawn of recorded music. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to know exactly how musicians organized their protective union in the days before hired union organizers. Perhaps organizing was more of a natural activity decades ago, when the lack of mobile phones, texts and e-mails actually required in-person conversations. Studies have shown that even today, the most successful organizing campaigns are built on those sorts of in-person conversations. Today, because of that fact, we push our own organizers here at Local 802 to make more in-person contacts with musicians. A century ago there was no other choice.
But we do know that those meetings and conversations led to the culture and practice of work rules and minimum pay scales that exist to this day in Local 802’s bylaws. Musicians banded together and agreed among themselves that the rules and prices would be adhered to by the members. And thus the purchasers of music (nightclubs, hotels and fathers of the bride, for example) had little choice but to pay the going rates, which were voted on by the members of the union. This is, more or less, how a guild works – and the guild system worked well for musicians before collective bargaining arose as a method of applying union strength in the 1940s and 50s.
Local 802 has come to rely on collective bargaining as the most effective way to improve wages and working conditions for musicians. We have negotiated hundreds of agreements for musicians of all stripes, from the New York Philharmonic to the club date employer Hank Lane Music to the orchestra members of Jazz at Lincoln Center. Collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) are the way we enforce our rights on the job. These CBAs have are backed by laws like the National Labor Relations Act.
But are these legally binding contracts always the best way of keeping our members vigilant and aware? When we rely on contracts and the law to protect us, we tend to lose sight of the fact that our collective strength is what really counts. We also give up the necessity to stay united and vigilant when fairness is enforced by a paper contract instead of a collective of musicians.
As we came to rely more on CBAs and as the population of non-symphonic musicians working in New York continued to shift from bands of horn players and rhythm sections to guitar-led self-contained groups, the guild system all but disappeared outside of a small cadre of musicians playing in midtown Manhattan. (That cadre is how we were recently able to win a contract at the nightclub 54 Below and how we often are able to make sure major acts that come to New York and hire local musicians do so under a union contract.) And though the most skilled and in-demand musicians are, by and large, union members, we only have that power in a limited space within the music industry.
Nowadays, the young horn players and their rhythm sections are not necessarily playing in midtown. They’re spread throughout the city, concentrated below 42nd Street and in the changing and vibrant scenes in Brooklyn and beyond. With no collective bargaining agreements to be seen where the music scene has recently taken hold, the guild system now seems like it might be a good idea again. In the fieldwork that Local 802’s organizers have done, talk has gravitated toward the idea of minimum pay rates. This may not be a new concept to long-time Local 802 members but it’s a new idea to those who have little or no experience with the union. A conversation in a nightclub between a Local 802 organizer and a musician might go something like this:
Organizer: “How’s this gig going for you?”
Musician: “It’s nice to have the work, and the audiences love the music – but it’s not quite paying the bills.”
Organizer: “What do you think could improve things?”
Musician: “Well, it would be nice if there were some way to make the venues pay a fair price for the music that brings in the customers.”
Organizer: “Did you know that the union has been able to get hotels to sign a contract with the union that requires them to pay a fair wage?”
Musician: “I’m not seeing that here in this hotel.”
Organizer: “Is that something you would be willing to work toward?”
Conversations like these may begin with a Local 802 organizer, but if the union is ever to grow outside of midtown, these conversations will have to happen between the musicians themselves. And this is where Local 802 members can contribute. Quite often, non-union bands have one or two Local 802 members who know the benefits of working under union contracts where the pay and benefits are decent. But those fair wages and benefits were not handed down from on high. They were fought for by the musicians themselves. Our members can become educators and organizers among the ranks of non-union musicians. The sense of building a union by the musicians themselves is something that will be necessary to create any meaningful strength and the betterment of conditions for musicians in New York.
I’ve always felt that too many leaders in the union think that organizing means merely convincing someone to join the union – otherwise known as recruitment. Actually, organizing means finding ways to make musicians understand that their strength is in their unity and their willingness to act for better conditions. But recruitment does have its place if we are able to get musicians to join the union for the right reasons.
It’s nice to be able to take advantage of the services the union has to offer by being a member. But the best reason to become a member is to join in the effort to further build the collective and the culture of the union. At one time that’s what the union was. Was it that times were tougher and musicians had less to lose by organizing for better treatment? Or was it true because musicians thought that their membership meant something? If we are to make the union relevant to most musicians, it has to first become relevant to us. We can’t rely on just the organizing staff at Local 802 to do the lifting. We all need to take part. That’s why we call it a union.