The Beat on the Street

Labor History Month

Volume CVII, No. 5May, 2007

May is Labor History Month. Union membership has been dropping in recent decades. Do you know musicians who aren’t union members? What should Local 802 – or the labor movement in general – be doing about this situation?

The first thing that must happen is for nonunion musicians to fully understand power is in numbers. What one person can’t get accomplished, perhaps 100 or 1,000 can.

The second area that must be looked at and studied is why people who are having problems feel that the person causing the problems is going to help them solve those problems.

Perhaps we can achieve better union density when all musicians can understand these two concepts of thought.

Jimmy Owens

I think it’s time for 802 and locals throughout the country to start nurturing the idea of professional music at school-age levels — from high schools right down to elementary.

Engaging kids’ minds and respect by lunchroom jazz concerts, symposiums with the dwindling band/orchestra programs and perhaps some one-on-one supervised after-school teaching seminars could go a long way to combat the recent discouraging cuts in funding for school music.

My lifelong career was inspired by a kindergarten teacher who played piano for us while we marched around the room discovering rhythm. Those were sweet days!

If it’s volunteers you’re looking for, let me be the first to sign up.

Marvin Laird

I think outreach to students is paramount, especially in areas that might not have visible AFM locals. As a music major at the University of New Hampshire, after four years I knew about Actors’ Equity from exposure to the Theatre Department but knew nothing about the AFM from my own department.

Kep Kaeppeler

I know plenty of nonunion musicians. Frankly, I would be one too — but the only reason I have to stay a member is instrument insurance. If I drop my membership I cannot get instrument insurance which I need since I travel often for work as a musician.

This means that I pay the amount of my union dues on top of the cost of my insurance.

And all I get is instrument insurance, not medical insurance — not one damn thing from the union.

I once worked a union job in a hotel. After signing the union contract, the management of the hotel changed, and the new manager read the 802 contract and realized that it was a contract for five days a week and we had agreed to only four days. He told us we had to work five days for the same money we signed for. The union basically said, “Oops…sorry!”

That’s 802 in a nutshell to me: no guts and no power whatsoever.

Name one union that would go on strike alongside 802.

Joel Forbes

1. Finds concrete ways to create work for musicians.

2. Hire union members to do regular free concerts.

3. Have talkbacks with pit orchestra musicians after shows. (It’s always just actors.)

4. Hold clinics, workshops and visit music schools.

Unless union work is created, why would any musician join us?

Jon Berger

I know lots of musicians who are not in the union. It seems like the AFM is mostly for Broadway, symphony and other high-profile gigs.

What about those of us who play nightclubs and bars?

Unfortunately, there are about 20 clubs and about a million musicians, so it’s a buyer’s market and the clubs are unwilling to pay scale.

Personally, I like being in the union, but it really doesn’t serve my needs, unless I get another gig on Broadway or play on a recording session that pays scale — usually for a major label or a successful indie one.

I think that the best thing the union can do is to raise the consciousness of society so that musicians are given the respect that I feel we deserve.

David Bennett Cohen

I’ve been a union member of Local 802 in good standing for years. I can tell you for a fact that one main reason why most musicians — whether they play club dates, small clubs or restaurants — opt out of joining the union is because the only members who get any true benefits are all the Broadway or TV musicians. There are no benefits or insurance for low-income musicians! You get what you pay into, so there’s Plan A, Plan B — and for low-income musicians, No Plan! The truth is, there is no incentive to join the union for musicians in the low-income bracket.

Gregg Gerson

I know of many musicians who don’t belong to a union. Many have dropped out of my Local 248 (Paterson, NJ) because they see no reason to pay dues for something they do not use. Those few that do belong are also members of 802 (like me).

There are several compelling reasons for musicians to belong to a union, especially 802.

I think the pension fund is crucial for creative people like artists and musicians and worth its weight in gold in later years. It takes only a few years to become vested and only requires several hundred dollars of properly reported work per year.

I have used the union’s payroll service Legit 802 to file my pension contributions and to pay myself legally on the books for years.

Have you ever gone to a bank for a loan? They ask what you do and you say, “I’m a musician.” Their next question is “O.K., but what do you do for a living?” By being a union member, you can provide documentation that you are a legitimate, contributing member of society with a real job. Besides social security and pension contributions you will also have pay stubs and W-2’s.

I was able to overcome my “penny-wise and pound foolish” mentality early in life, and — that being said — being a union member is a no-brainer. The benefits far outweigh the dues.

In fact, I have been provided more than enough gigs from and through the union (including MPF gigs, etc.) to pay all dues and then some. Many of those jobs also gave me an opportunity to share my craft with those less fortunate than I, and I really feel good about that as well.

How about getting a request from an establishment you are scheduled to play at stating they need to see a copy of your insurance coverage before you can work there? My Local 248 (as any local) was able to provide me insurance coverage along with a very impressive letter on several occasions stating I was covered for over a million dollars. This was provided with no charge, all because of my membership.

Finally, as single parent and musician raising five kids alone, my family and I cannot even begin to thank Local 802 for the support and assistance we received in the aftermath of 9/11 and the resulting quagmire.

Jerry Bria

As musicians, we have to choose if we want to be a labor union or professional guild. If it’s a labor union, we accept that there’s little art to what we do and any skilled person can do our job. That may be the case for some musical jobs but not the records that I make.

At a recent meeting with the AFM leaders at 802, it was acknowledged that raising dues by $20 a year would result in the loss of many thousands of inactive or part-time members.

I say let them go. Make our union an organization by and for working professionals.

I vote that we leave the AFL-CIO and give up on the membership numbers and ask our leadership to focus on issues that are important to us. Getting in line with the AFL-CIO is not always in the best interest of New York musicians.

Yes, I know a few nonunion musicians. Nonunion by choice — and these are some of the finest musicians I’ve ever had the pleasure to create music with. I can’t put them on a contract but they command a much higher fee than any scale.

What should 802 do about this? Maybe we should lose the AFM and make our organization a professional musicians’ guild. Nonunion professionals will join us when the labor movement is not in the vernacular. Are we skilled labor or are we artists? We need an organization that embraces the latter.

Jeremy Roberts

Sad to say but the days of union strength are dwindling due to the globalization of the marketplace. Big money simply avoids the union problem now by setting up shop in another country. The trickle-down effect of this is the weakening of unions’ abilities to save jobs by keeping production unionized. This affects all unions because it becomes less important to be in a union if the union’s reputation and strength are diminished. Then it becomes, “Why buy union when there are other cheaper alternatives?”

The unions created the middle class and the unions will be the victims as the powers that be try to dismantle the middle class.

On the musicians’ level, there are just fewer and fewer gigs that are essentially union. It’s hard to convince a kid how important it is to have a pension when a pension wasn’t the reason or the goal for entering music in the first place.

Jerry Solomon

The question is: why should someone join Local 802?

The vast majority of musicians are primarily concerned about getting jobs. The union does not help with that and never has.

802 only comes into play once a musician has completed the hard part — getting a job — and then needs union membership in order to play in a union-contracted ensemble.

The world is changing. We live in a music world dominated by the likes of Vivendi and iTunes. It’s the rise of the entrepreneurial musicians and bands who reach out directly to their customers.

Established music is on the decline. Broadway and the number of musicians it hires has been declining steadily through one non-advantageous contract through the next. Funding for the arts has been shrinking since Reaganomics and even older symphony orchestras have the phenomena where patrons contribute money but do not attend concerts.

These are the real issues. If the musicians’ union does not take it upon itself to address these issues and be involved in job growth — rather than trying to hold onto the shrinking number of venues that warrant union involvement — then musicians will not see any reason or have any motivation to join, and the membership will largely consist of a small number of established musicians in the few union jobs that are left, while most of the work is either nonunion or outsourced overseas, where it is cheaper.

The old saying is, “You can only continue coasting when you are going downhill.”

Will the musician’s union coast and continue to decline, or will it become a force for positive change that justifies the dues we pay annually to be members?

Michael Drapkin

Most rock or heavy metal artists are not even aware of any union for musicians. The union should put more efforts into organizing these artists. There are millions of these performers in the U.S. alone, and if we all were organized and unionized then the strength and influence of the union — especially politically — would multiply a hundredfold.

Michael Gibbons, Jr.

As an 802 member living halfway out Long Island, the union seems to have very little relevance or impact. I think that increasing the union’s presence on the Internet with regular e-mails and bulletins helps to make members feel connected to their union but doesn’t touch nonmembers. We need to make benefits of membership more apparent and more accessible.

I have a trombone quartet and play in several jazz groups. Recently I inquired via e-mail about how to get MPF support for performances such as demonstrations in schools. Receiving no response from anyone at 802 leads me to believe that there are a few regulars who have this benefit monopolized. This is a benefit that would be felt outside of the city.

Rod Borrie

What can the union do? I organized a committee to deal with the problems facing the string players and associated musicians in the club date field.

At meetings we were told by union reps that union membership is down and it did not have the staffing or funding to take strong action to protect these musicians from nonunion competition.

I know of one string player who left the union after this.

Most others remain but have stopped reporting their work.

It seems to me that the union will get weaker and weaker unless major changes are made in staffing and overall attitude.

Aaron Minsky (a/k/a Von Cello)