Should Membership in Local 802 be Open to All?

Beat on the Street

Volume CIX, No. 6June, 2009

This month, we asked Local 802 members the following 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?”

Almost everyone who wrote back agreed that membership should remain open. (We also received some other views; we’re printing those below as well.)

Some people were amazed and even angry that we would ask this question in the first place. So let’s be clear.

The official position of this administration is that anyone should be able to join Local 802. But at the last membership meeting, a few musicians floated the idea of tightening membership requirements. Therefore, we thought it would be interesting to see what our larger membership thought about this.

Needless to say, we agree with the majority view: membership should remain open.

President Mary Landolfi addresses this issue in her president’s report.

Read below to see a sample of what musicians felt about this issue. We received many more responses that we could print. If your point of view wasn’t represented, write a letter to the editor. E-mail Allegro editor Mikael Elsila at

The last thing a union needs to be doing is looking for ways to exclude musicians who want to be part of a union.

Steve Alcott 

It’s only common sense to leave membership open. If Paganini or Mozart wanted to join at the beginning of their careers, wouldn’t it be embarrassing to keep them out?

Mike Kucsak 

Are you kidding? The amount of gigs has dropped drastically in the past years. Are you going to suspend union members for not getting enough union work? Nothing personal, but that’s the dumbest idea I’ve heard from you guys yet. Why build a coalition of musicians who can justify their being nonunion by the number of contracts they filed? The union needs to concentrate on getting more union work, not reducing the membership.

Sammy Merendino

I don’t think there should be a minimum contract requirement. As for being “open to anyone who wants to join.” I would hope that “anyone” would be a professional musician of some kind. I would not like to see the AFM start organizing clerical workers or other professions the way the Teamsters have. Let’s keep AFM a union of musicians.

Martha Hyde

Local 802 has once again managed to invent a self defeating stroke of genius! Not only are inflation-adjusted prices at their lowest and union regulations driving away business, we can make ourselves even weaker by this exclusionary tactic. A musician is a musician; our power derives from our numbers. At this time however, we are standing on the highest and thinnest branch. To expedite matters I can lend you my saw. Perhaps of the soon-to-be-ex-union members can lend you a bow so you can play “The Swan” in the 42nd Street subway station.

Daniel Flam

It would be merciful and honest of the union to stop accepting dues from members it doesn’t truly represent.

James Alexander 

Membership should not be restricted to persons with a certain number of union contracts. Some people keep up their skills even when they aren’t often employed. It’s a question of quality, not quantity. And such a restriction would squeeze out players of unusual instruments — this would impact not only those players but also contractors who need those instruments on rare occasions. Think of when an orchestra needs a classical mandolinist, saw player, or cymbalom player.

Frederic Chrislip 

First, it’s a dumb question. I made my living playing recordings, commercials, TV shows (as many as seven shows a week) for 20 to 25 years in Canada, and of course the union was an integral part of this. Later I had to work hotels, club dates and everything under the sun in the states, not knowing people and being in several cities. Now I’m finding it tough to find work in New York because I haven’t been here long and I don’t know a lot of musicians or contractors. Does that mean I can no longer be a union member? What you’re saying to me is: you’re having tough times, forget about the union.

Second, if anybody can join the union, does that mean the IBM salesforce should be able to join because their bosses told them music enhances their brainpower and work and they learned three chords to please those bosses?

It’s been a horrible question for 100 years as to who should be able to join the musicians’ union. Many would like to limit it but it’s impossible. Eventually those who join who can’t play will become a moot force anyway.

Alvin Pall 

I think we should follow the lead of all other workers’ unions, and only allow people to join 802 and AFM only after they have actually been hired for a professional engagement that is controlled by one of our union contracts. Our union is not a club for music-lovers, but a professional organization to represent musicians who work under these specific contracts, just as the Teamsters represent those who work under their contracts. We can support up-and-coming musicians who hope to become professionals with our wisdom, but until they join our workforce, they are not professional musicians. We can also support musicians who work in venues that are not controlled by union contracts, and assist them in getting union contract coverage for their work. I do not think we should create the challenges for membership that Actors’ Equity uses, but I do think being hired for, and working, at least one union contract job, should be a pre-requisite for membership.

Jennifer Hoult

Anyone who has decided to join the union should be considered an equal to the person that has done 40 Broadway shows or played in the Phil for 30 years. Music is not a linear process; we don’t go from point A then to point B, etc. Anyone with any real awareness knows that the more you develop your craft, the more you realize how little you know and how one has barely scratched the surface of possibility. The beginner and the most prolific professional are just at different points on the same path.

Kermit Driscoll

No one should be hired for a Broadway show unless he or she has lived in New York for a minimum of six months.

Donald Hayward 

Membership should absolutely be open to all musicians. This is our community and a forum for learning and communication. This should not just be available for those who are actively performing to a “required” level. Many of us have already done that and are now in quieter phases of our careers. This does not remove our value to the group.

Joe Rice

Of course membership should be open to anyone. Who came up with that question? There is strength in numbers, even though many do not get the benefit of what the ultimate goal is. A guy who is receiving a pension of $8,000 a month is getting it partly as a result of all the thousands who put a few dollars in over their career and never got vested. Anyone who joins the union probably joins with the hopes of having a successful career. So your question is like asking, “Should we exclude anyone who has hope of being a musician?” I’ve been a member for 50 years and I see a decline in the thinking process. 

William Easley

I strongly feel that membership should continue to be open to any musician who wants to join. The first thing I did, when I moved to New York in 2006 from Seattle, was to join Local 802. Having contact info for every member in town was a huge bonus for me personally. The help and guidance of a few of my fellow union brothers and sisters has continued to aid me in hopefully reaching my goal as a Broadway pit drummer some day.

Russ Nyberg 

To make the change in membership requirement this question implies would transform Local 802 from a labor union to a craft guild. There would be fewer members, so dues would have to be raised in order to meet expenses of operating the local. Moreover, such a change would close an avenue of access for newcomers to the music profession to make themselves available for union-covered work, an avenue that has been an essential aspect, not just of Local 802, but of chapters AFM-wide. There is only one criterion that should be required — a professional level of musical ability.

Richard Schneider

There should not be exclusionary policies included in membership. Every working musician should have the right to join the union. Let’s not go backwards in history! We fought for unions — our ancestors did. Let’s not make them into elite social clubs! I would love to be able to boast a lot of Broadway shows, fancy hotel gigs and private parties that pay union scale and sign union agreements. But these just don’t come my way very often. Instead, I spend a lot of time using all the skills I have — languages, teaching, etc. — to make a living. We have to take what we have, work with it and try to improve it, not go inside-out and start from another elitist reality.

Carol Sudhalter 

The union should remain open to all. I am a musician that has never worked a union gig. But I belong to the union because I feel that my membership helps make the union strong and will protect me if I ever get offered a union job.

Richie Nagan 

I was in my early 20’s when I became a member of 802. I was in a band signed to Warner Brothers and we got to do some commercial recording work after our record was released. Some years were fantastic, while others were not so. But having come from a family that thoroughly believed in the unions, I found the fellowship within 802 encouraging and often inspiring. “I paid my dues” both figuratively and realistically, with the faith that the work would keep coming. I am glad that I did not have to worry about fulfilling a quota of jobs in order to stay in the union. In this period of economic insecurity and waning work opportunities, the last place that I would expect to feel pressure from would be my union.

Murray Weinstock

As a Local 802 member for more than 30 years who now lives abroad, I certainly would feel odd having to return to New York City for the occasional film score session as a scab! Further, more members, more strength, more revenue. Not rocket science, seems to me. Is there really an opposing viewpoint?

Ken Bichel

When I joined AFM Local 47 (Los Angeles) in 1963, an audition was mandatory, just as it was when I joined Local 802 in 1966. Since those days, the union rules — as well as the economy and musical technology — have changed dramatically. Thus, in my opinion, the more members, the higher the visibility of organized labor, thereby creating a greater union presence in all fields of the industry. This will make for a healthier climate both for negotiation and enforcement of union contracts.

Tony Horowitz

I don’t agree with the idea to limit membership to those who work a certain number of union contracts. I joined the union in 1968 as a young musician with aspirations of making a livelihood in the music industry. But reality set in and I was compelled to pursue other venues in order to maintain an acceptable standard for my family, let alone keeping my family together. However, I never completely gave up on my original passion to be a musician. Over the years, as a musician, I have worked in various settings and situations. Although a union contract is always the most desirable to situation to work under, it was not always available. But, throughout the years, I always paid my dues and showed my support for the union and its ideals. Each year I look forward to the possibility of obtaining the kind of union-sanctioned employment that would make other types of work unnecessary. If a minimal union contract quota were to be established, my membership would probably come to an end.

Maurice Sedacca

In my opinion, Local 802 membership should continue to be open to anyone who wants to join. People join mainly in the hopes of networking with other professional musicians to become better known in the New York musical community. To a much lesser degree, they might desire to take advantage of some of the programs that our union can offer them (the credit union, Musicians’ Assistance Program, renting the club room, etc.) That is all quite valid, and the more members we have, the healthier our union will be both politically and financially. Why restrict it to people who are already working under a certain number of union contracts? Doesn’t that just seem to require a kind of Catch-22 logic?

Jack Bashkow 

I’ve been a member for over 35 years. Most of my work is not union. Why? Because 802 never organized the nightclub scene on Long Island, and it pretty much died in New York (compared to the 70’s). You can’t work under a union contract if one doesn’t exist. Yet I still pay my dues, because I believe a strong musicians’ union is vital even if it doesn’t cover my particular situation. I know a number of other musicians who feel the same. 

Russell Alexander

We can see how the closed system works by looking at Equity. Actors need to be in Equity to get into high-level auditions, but the only way to get into Equity is to be in a high-level production. It’s a Catch-22. I say leave things as they are for musicians. Join 802, then slug it out and let your talent take you where it will. Keep the playing field level — at least in regard to union membership.

Nicholas DiFabbio 

A long-term period of declining union membership is not the time to restrict who may join. I no longer live or work in New York, but I have maintained my Local 802 membership. 

 William Moersch

As a freelance musician who does not do club dates, nor do I work on Broadway or with an orchestra, I would have to say that membership should be open to everyone. Most of the music that I play does not fall under union contract. I do record some every year and I do one or two gigs that fall under union contract every year. The music I play is considered experimental or independent and as much as we have tried over the years to have this music fall under contract it is an ongoing and difficult task. I have been a member of Local 802 for over 30 years and have somehow managed to become vested in the pension plan but I have had years where I didn’t play any union gigs. I would hate to have a union rep come up to me and say “Well, you know, son, you just didn’t do enough union-contracted gigs this year, so…” What would be the criteria? Seems complicated to me. I think it would be wiser to put that energy into organizing more independent musicians to form an alliance to have their work fall under contract! They have managed to work that out in Canada so why not here?

Jim Pugliese

I think the union should be open to all musicians that are supportive of Local 802’s bylaws and rules, like the government should not be made up of only the wealthy but the poor as well. We all represent different styles and genres of music. Not all people are able to get the work through contractors; some get work because they are the best players for the job, yet others get the work because they run for it. Some are lucky to be working under a certain number of contracts; however, other contracts or orchestras have folded where we have placed a lot of our time and energy. I also think that this is a bad time to make this kind of decision in this time of economic crisis. Don’t the dues help support the union? What happens when it comes time to vote as an entire body of musicians to get what is important to us? We will have less in numbers then.

Susan Heerema 

Local 802 and AFM membership needs to be open to anyone. However, there should be, and always should have been, voting and non-voting membership status based on union contracted income. If you earn above some predetermined level and can be considered a “professional” musician, you can vote on officers, contracts, and other matters that affect you and your income. If not, you still get to enjoy the benefits of union membership but have no vote and are unable through any voting process to affect policy. Most of the union problems I’ve seen in my 45 years of fairly active membership have stemmed from the fact that we are not nor have we ever been a truly professional organization. There is no other union, to my knowledge, in which the majority of its membership’s “real” work is in other fields. What percentage of AFM members earn more than $5,000 per year through AFM contract employment? $10,000? Are there many members of the UAW who work in a shoe store 40 hours a week and head to the auto assembly plant to pound some rivets for a couple of hours on Friday and Saturday nights? Same with teachers, truck drivers, etc. And yet many decisions, especially at the Federation level, have been and are being made by members with at best a tangential relationship to the actual music business.

Jim Pugh

Local 802 counsel advises that this member’s suggestion would violate the equal voting rights provision of Section 101 of the LMRDA, which requires that a union’s voter eligibility standards not discriminate against one membership class or category in favor of another. In this instance, the eligibility requirement that a member satisfy an income threshold before being permitted to vote would impermissibly discriminate against those members who failed to meet that threshold.

I think it would be a major mistake to limit union membership to those who only work a specified number of union contracts per year. This change would make the size and strength of our union dependent on the whims and fortunes of our employers. If, for example, the New York Philharmonic or the Metropolitan Opera goes out of business, a significant chunk of our membership would have to figure out how to replace the lost income while facing the prospect of doing so without union protection or backing. Our membership has been shrinking steadily over the 23 years I’ve been in the New York local. No interest group with the slightest amount of common sense (see the current Republican party) can expect to expand its influence by contracting in size. We need more members, and better educated members, not fewer members. And how can we expect young musicians (or musicians active in ethnic or other music scenes who only occasionally get union gigs) to want to join us after they have the experience of working under union contracts that stipulate pension and welfare contributions, and deduct work dues from their pay, while denying them membership? I can’t think of a better anti-union argument for an employer: “The musicians’ union has set this contract up to take money out of your paycheck and you can’t even join them. How is that different from the Mob shaking down a candy store? If we didn’t have to pay them pension and welfare, we could give you half of that money and keep half and we’d both be better off.”

Andy Bassford 

I feel that membership should be open to anyone who wants to join, provided they are working musicians who can rely on and benefit from the union’s strength and bargaining power and protection in the workplace. I don’t think that membership should be limited beyond that qualifier.

Doyle Newmyer

Our business, for the most part, is a meritocracy: the best players generally get called for the higher quality work. Many of us from other places come to New York City for this very reason. To compete with the best player makes us better players. Does a musician who makes his living doing something else and plays on the weekend have the same insights as an upper echelon player who does Broadway, sessions and orchestra gigs? This isn’t necessarily a problem in terms of paying your $250 and getting a union card; it’s a problem when it comes to voting on issues that one can only have insights into if you’re working in the industry. Just because I can do some basic plumbing in my house doesn’t mean I can join, or will be accepted in, the plumbers’ union.

Barry Danielian

The question is so meaningless and patently absurd as to be nearly laughable, since it should be obvious that the very existence of Local 802 without a full open and dues-paying membership would simply not be feasible. It has all the pseudo-gravity of asking people if they think the earth should revolve around the sun, or the other way around.

Much more relevant would be to ask the rank and file whether or not they feel that the “Musicians’ Voice” page in Allegro — that is, the letters page — should be used as a platform by our leadership to further dissemble and advance its point of view by selectively responding only to those letters which offer them the opportunity to do so, thus in effect, having the last word. Particularly specious is the misnomer “Local 802 Replies,” since that entity is far more than just the sum of its officers, and applies with far greater accuracy to those of us writing the letters than it does to the respondents, who clearly have turned “The Musicians’ Voice” into the voice of the administration.

Dean Crandall 

There is very little government funding for the arts now. Live music on Broadway has practically collapsed. Recording work has gone to cheap players in Eastern Europe. There are few remaining opportunities for musicians to earn a living wage in one of the most expensive cities in the United States. If Local 802 membership were limited to musicians who work under a certain number of union contracts, then the entire union would instantly collapse. The few remaining members would probably be outnumbered by the full time staff employees in the Local 802 office.

Michael Drapkin

I believe we should open our union to all who want join. Obviously every member has their own special reason that has led them to Local 802 or brought them to live in New York and be part on the music scene here. I’m a professional harmonica player. Prior to the mid 1940’s, harmonica was not considered an instrument and we couldn’t join! I’ve attached a picture of some New York players who later joined, once some genius figured out we were playing real music. Mike Chimes and Tabby Andriello were great musicians and this shot was taken during the Local 802 strike. These Harmonicats were getting the only work in town. Yes, they were strikebreakers, but they were turned down by Local 802 and they had to eat! I’m sure glad things have changed and glad to part of the new Local 802! I’m sure they both later joined.

Rob Paparozzi

The expense of annual membership fees already discourages most musicians who do not work a certain number of union jobs from staying in the union. Local 802 should focus on increasing its membership as well as the type of work that could become union. Earning a living in this industry can be stressful; having the looming threat of being expelled from the union is mean spirited and fiscally foolish.

Rob Susman 

As a “partial-pro” musician and Local 802 member since 1980, I support open membership. It does not make any sense for the union to limit membership dollars by defining who is and who is not a professional. Our field is loosely structured and our union should reflect this. Local 802 is not a club for an exclusive group in a profession that already threatens to be elitist as it is. It is an organization that provides a voice for all musicians. In a deep recession, underemployed performing artists need more fraternity, not less. Thank you for providing this public forum.

Deirdre McArdle-Manning

Membership should not be limited since it seems to defeat the purpose of encouraging all musicians to commit to the union on the principles that union jobs are better than nonunion jobs and the union is stronger with a higher total percentage of musicians participating.

Would we want musicians new to the area waiting to join the union until they have a “union job” or two or three? In the same vein, what about established musicians who have always played outside the union market but want to start working union jobs or want to work towards establishing union contracts at their existing venues?

Autumn Shepherd

I beleive that union membership should be open to anyone who wants to join. Anyone wanting to be part of an organization like Local 802, which works hard to look out for the interests of its membership,is a good thing and should be encouraged.

Dennis Williams