The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love

Organizing Matters

Volume 111, No. 4April, 2011

Michael Donovan

What if there was a way that you could improve the life of musicians in your field and help out the union at the same time?

We are announcing immediate openings for union stewards. We need stewards in every orchestra, club date band, classical ensemble, recording session or music school. Wherever there is a gig, we need a steward.

We’ll train you. Basically, the union steward is a communication conduit. You listen to your fellow musicians and tell us their concerns and needs. You pass these along to the union. Likewise, we’ll give you info to share with your musicians.

But this job is not just about passing along messages. The union steward is, first and foremost, an educator. You have to believe in the union and its mission.

When issues need explaining, the union steward will break them down for his or her fellow musicians. If musicians have questions about why the union is doing this or that, the steward will know the bottom line.

Why is this important? Without an informed membership, the union risks having its message lost. If you’re a musician and the only information you get about Local 802 is through the mainstream media or through what your orchestra management tells you, then you’ve lost out. If you’re a new member and don’t know anything about the union and you’ve just joined us because you are required to, you won’t be committed.

Stewards analyze the deeper reasons for why the union is taking the tack that it is. Basically, stewards make it possible for musicians to feel confident in the union.

The steward is a leader in the workplace. In all matters of union/management relations, an informed steward is the person the members should be able to turn to for answers. This requires the steward to be aware of the contract and the laws governing workers rights.

The steward is a defender of the union and of the members. With unions under unprecedented attack from many directions, the steward is faced with many challenges. Sometimes the members can’t appreciate what the union has done for them, what it is doing now and what it can do in the future. Explaining the contract, benefits, rules and regulations of the workplace health and safety issues all fall within the scope of the steward’s duties.

The steward is an organizer in the workplace. When a new player comes to an orchestra or when a sub is on the job, the steward should be there with information on the player’s rights and duties. The steward should sign members up and make the union aware of any contractual problems arising from the introduction of new players. The steward will also be the point person for organizing members to take part in rallies, leafleting, picketing, and solidarity actions. The strongest unions are those unions whose members are the most active.

The steward enforces the contract. There can’t be enough said about making sure that the rights guaranteed by the collective bargaining agreement are applied fairly throughout the bargaining unit.

The steward should be on the scene to assist the musician in any decision by management that may result in disciplinary action against a member.

Musicians, like other unionized workers, need a functioning, effective union. They need a leadership that knows the issues in the orchestra pits, the concert halls, hotels, ballrooms, the classrooms and everywhere Local 802 musicians perform. In order to become a stronger union we need member involvement.

With a steward system in place, the message of Local 802 will be transmitted to the members in an efficient and timely manner. It will allow the union to mobilize the membership, spread the message that needs to be circulated, and get the members involved on their own behalf and on the behalf of our brothers and sisters in other unions and the labor movement in general.

The steward system will give us more presence in the workplace, focus the union membership on real issues, and organize ourselves for the future challenges facing us. Unions are, after all, the members that make them up. No organization can survive if its members are indifferent to its survival. I know this is not the case with Local 802 but every union can do better and Local 802 can as well. Every place we have contracts we should have stewards.

In the course of my career in labor I have conducted many classes in steward training. In every sector and segment of the unionized workplace, the steward is the most important official of the union. Without the steward, the union has no eyes or ears in the workplace and the workers will not have the union where its presence is most needed – on the job.

The union steward’s worth stems from the job he or she carries out on a daily basis. The steward may be the only contact with the union a member might ever have.

In summary, to borrow the Peace Corps’ slogan, being a steward is the toughest job you’ll ever love.

The Organizing and Field Services Department will be working on setting up a steward system where stewards will be trained in the ins and outs of the steward system, the labor laws, and all the aspects of being a steward. Please call me at (212) 245-4802, ext. 141 and volunteer for this most important position and help Local 802 become the strongest union in New York City! You will benefit, the officers will benefit and most of all the members will benefit.

Michael Donovan is the director of organizing and supervisor of the union’s single engagement department. If you’re playing a job where you feel disrespected or know that you aren’t being paid fairly, contact Michael at (212) 245-4802, ext. 141 or You can also call the Local 802 hotline anonymously at (212) 245-4802, ext. 260 to report a job or working situation.