Representing All Musicians, All the Time

President's Report (“Organize or Die” revisited)

Volume CIX, No. 6June, 2009

Mary Landolfi

Question: “Should Local 802 membership be limited to musicians who work under a certain number of union contracts, or should membership continue to be open to anyone who wants to join?”

That was what we asked members this month in our “Beat on the Street” column. (See page 12.) It seems to have struck a nerve.

As one respondent stated, “What has prompted this question in the first place? Is limiting the membership of the local a step the administration is considering?” 

Actually the conclusion drawn by this writer was the opposite of what was intended. We did want to assess the attitude of the membership toward how big the union should be, but it was done with the intention to highlight how important it is to keep all musicians in the union, not with the idea that we should circle the wagons and keep some people out.

To reinforce that point, the reader should be aware that Local 802 has a mission statement, which I helped draft in 2005:

“We are the Associated Musicians of Greater New York, American Federation of Musicians Local 802, one of the largest local unions of professional musicians in the world. We unite to fight for the common interests of all musicians by advancing industry standards that dignify our labor and honor and enrich our art. We seek to organize a community of all musicians and aspiring musicians, and we reach out to all who share our interests and our passion. We are committed to upholding the integrity of live musical performance and to advancing the vital role of music in education, and in the economic, cultural and social life of our community and beyond. We advocate for economic and social justice for musicians and for society as a whole.” (Adopted by the Local 802 Executive Board, April 12, 2005.)

I agree with the respondents who express the idea that the union should be big, not small and should include people who are doing work in all kinds of venues, just as the AFM bylaws direct.

Having said that, however, there is another question that comes to mind — is it enough to encourage every musician to join the AFM? How do we retain the members who join if we are not able to bring the central component of the union’s role to all members – collective bargaining? 

This is another facet of the “organize or die” mantra about which I wrote last month.

On one hand, if a union does not capture new kinds of work and respond to new business models, it risks becoming unable to control wages and work conditions in the marketplace.

Looked at from another perspective, if a union does not bring all of the work of its members under contract, at least some of those members will begin to think that union membership is irrelevant to their lives. If they find that so little of their work falls under a union contract that they cannot successfully build a pension and qualify for health benefits, they will conclude that union membership is worthless. This is the reason that every recruitment drive tends to result in an initial surge in membership — when people who want to be part of the union join — followed by another drop when many realize that being a member does not necessarily lead to union work. 

Our work as musicians is a calling. It is sometimes difficult to toe the union line when an artistically interesting project is on the line or when your book is empty and that nonunion call comes in.

It’s also tempting to rationalize to oneself why some work is not worthy of the union’s attention.

So, we end up with unhappy compromises:

  • Ballet companies where the orchestra is union, but the rehearsal pianists are not.
  • Concerts of younger musicians who hope that exposure on a low-paying job will lead to better work in the future.
  • Musicians who are conflicted about whether or not a particular job should be union. (Some of these musicians already have benefits and they are O.K. with the job not being union since they won’t have to pay work dues on the gig. Others need benefits but are afraid to speak out.)

We must remember, however, that if those at the base of the union pyramid — the ones with the lowest-paying employment — are unable to participate in the benefits of collective bargaining, their work will fall farther and farther behind the standard and become more and more a drag on conditions at the top.

As we have seen in recent months, organizing is hard and can be controversial, particularly if we are not able to achieve 100 percent results, as is often the case.

We have to remember, however, that the alternative is worse: a shrinking organization that is less and less able to respond to the needs of its members as it fails to renew itself to new generations. If we are to succeed, we cannot settle for co-existence between union and nonunion employment. 

This is a terrible dilemma with which the AFM has been struggling for a long time.

If we are to change our situation, we must fully support our mission statement by seeking a growing and revitalized Local 802 and by organizing in all areas of our industry.

Toward that end, the Executive Board has engaged a well-known labor consultant, Michael Locker, to assist in developing a new live music initiative.

In its initial stages it will require building a coalition that will demand new support for the arts in New York City. It will also entail organizing new musical employment and insisting that it be done under the union umbrella.

This is not an initiative that can be successfully done by the staff alone, nor can it be purchased with a few radio ads. It will utilize our public relations funding as seed money for a larger goal and will require an investment of time by many members if it is to be achieved.

If you believe that live music is an integral part of the culture of New York City and want that fact to be recognized, I ask you to work toward the success of this endeavor.

Expect more information soon. In the meantime, feel free to contact me , Organizing Director Joel LeFevre or Political Director Paul Molloy ( Also, as usual, e-mail your letters to the editor to We want to hear from you.


In the May issue of Allegro, we ran a story about the “YouTube Symphony.” This was a project in which the popular Web site auditioned musicians, commissioned a short symphonic piece by Tan Dun, and flew the winners to Carnegie Hall to perform a concert. Musicians weren’t paid, but we thought that the project was overall a worthwhile experience. New York Philharmonic violist Ken Mirkin wrote a guest commentary for Allegro on the same page in which he also saw some good in the project.

However, Anthony Tommisini wrote an April 16 piece in the New York Times in which he mentioned that “The orchestra had basically two days to work. Monday they rehearsed from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., which is what a conductor can do when freed from union work rules with an ensemble of unpaid players.”

I wrote a response to the New York Times, which was not printed. Here it is:

“To the Editor:

“I, too, am gratified that YouTube chose to sponsor a symphony orchestra rather than a basketball exhibition. Anything that serves to make symphonic music relevant to a new generation is good, given the neglect that the arts suffer in the current educational system.

“I wonder, however, why it was necessary to put a favorable spin on the fact that these musicians worked an eleven-hour day in preparation for this concert and to take a swipe at unions in the process? It is doubtful that the latter hours of that rehearsal were very productive or that this creative approach to rehearsal scheduling would work as a new paradigm for arts production. Professional performance requires a high degree of concentration and physical effort; rehearsals of the length described in your review rapidly reach a point of diminishing return.

“Increasingly in this country the performance arts are treated as an ‘American Idol’-type novelty — something expected to be an unpaid endeavor unless lightning strikes. Contrary to this image, arts and entertainment is an industry which is a significant economic engine for New York City; it depends on the services of highly trained workers who expend time and effort to maintain their skills. Casual comments like the one contained in your review undermine the importance of employment standards for entertainment workers which unions have helped to create. 

“Sincerely, Mary Landolfi.”


It may seem obscure, but the Census Bureau visited me this month and told me that Brooklyn and the Bronx were underreported in the last census. The next census is next year. The bureau wants to enlist all kinds of organizations — including ours — in making sure that residents in Brooklyn and the Bronx respond to the national census questionnaire. The census really does affect the well-being of residents, including funding for new roads, hospitals and schools. Look in the next issue of Allegro for more info.