The Musicians’ Voice

Volume CV, No. 5May, 2005


To the Editor:

Over the past year, the president of the service workers’ union (SEIU), Andy Stern, has tried to shake up and wake up the labor movement. While I admire much of his work, I have problems when he says, “I don’t think people join unions for democracy…they join unions to gain strength to change their lives.” It shouldn’t be an either/or situation.

It sounds like the bad old days of autocratic unionism, with officials always knowing what’s best for the lumpenprole: “Just pay your dues and keep your mouths shut.”

While I’m certainly not accusing Mr. Stern of such a stance, historically some of the worst abuses in unions and the resulting weakening of labor’s power stem from just this sort of thing. Therefore, I would not treat the importance of democratic unionism so lightly.

Here at 802, I have been a member of several committees. 802 has been held up by the Central Labor Council as an exemplar of participatory unionism. While it is definitely not perfect, I am happy to be involved in what I feel is basically an open process where rank-and-file concerns are given consideration via elected committees and an elected Executive Board who, along with elected officers, actively oversee the operations of the union.

So we have some democracy. On the flip side, 802’s association with COBUG is an example of strength. COBUG’s value was seen in 2003, when all the other theatrical unions honored our picket line in four days of historic solidarity. Though nascent and imperfect, I believe this enabled us to significantly reduce the hit that we took from management. Such action should ideally be in the purview of Central Labor Councils or similar existing union bodies. If not, these types of ad hoc associations could be undertaken by forward-looking unions involved in particular crafts or industries.

–John Arbo

The Musicians’ Voice is an open forum for discussion about the state of union affairs. The views expressed here do not express the views of Local 802. Please keep all letters to 300 words and send them to Allegro, Local 802, 322 West 48th Street, New York, NY 10036, or e-mail Mikael Elsila, the editor, at