The fact that May is Labor History Month is a reminder that history should serve as a lesson, or else it is destined to be confined to the realm of nostalgia and useless sentimentality.
For a good deal of the AFM’s history, its strength had little to do with collective bargaining, which is today our defining strength and strategy in upholding fairness and our rights as musicians at work.
In 1953, Robert D. Leiter wrote in the introduction to his history, “The Musicians and Petrillo”:
The American Federation of Musicians exercises complete control over professional musicians in the United States. A musician who is not in the union normally cannot earn a livelihood by playing an instrument. The union frequently has been able to impose the terms of employment upon employers without negotiation.
Contained within this capsule of historical documentation lies the dilemma the AFM faced as it became less relevant to musicians plying their trade as rock and roll and country music overcame jazz and dance music as the dominating tastes of the music-enjoying public.
In the era of the big band, the union could enforce its rules upon its membership in order to maintain the standards necessary to make a living as a musician. This is why many of the AFM locals referred to themselves as “protective associations” instead of unions.
The agreements that enforced standards in the industry were between the members of the union, not between the union and the employers. The union could impose the threat of discipline on any member who played in a nightclub, for instance, that did not pay minimum scale wages or that violated any of the myriad bylaws the union created in dealing with countless issues.
Those days, for better or worse, are long gone. But is it for better or for worse?
We are certainly better off as a union that is no longer perceived as the cops that come to hammer a musician trying to make a living with a fine or threat of expulsion.
To this day we live with that legacy through horror stories we hear about the bad old days. Many non-union (and even some union) musicians still think the union is the same union it was in 1953.
But a big reason for the union not being the disciplinary machine it once was has little to do with higher consciousness. It has to do with our loss of strength and unity over the years. Dozens of AFM locals across the country no longer exist for failure to grapple with the causes of this state of affairs.
Thankfully, Local 802 retains solidarity and unity among its established orchestras and as a result wields great bargaining power with their employers. It’s in the freelance part of the industry, which is colossal, that our strength has dissipated. The nightclubs in New York City are not the nightclubs of the 50’s when musicians found it necessary to join the union and uphold its bylaws.
I think it’s time we look at the best and the worst of the old paradigm of the union organizing through the principles of internal discipline.
We don’t want to unnecessarily threaten our members with discipline. It’s not what we’re about.
Local 802 has become a union of goodwill between its members (recent internal political battles aside), in which we reach out to each other to solve our internal differences and use our unity to fight against employer abuses, and to boost the mission of preserving live music in this great city.
On the other hand, some members play too loosely with our bylaws, which were put in place through a democratic process that reflects the will of the majority of our members.
Too many members disregard the principles of unionism and solidarity because they want the gig. It happens so often that many feel it is futile to try to rein in all the dark dates and non-union work.
But, without going back to the good (or bad) old days, we as union members need to think seriously about what our actions mean to the future of our union and our livelihood. Too much lack of internal discipline will lead to more of the walls of protection crumbling around us.
Look at Mike Donovan’s article about the renegade employer in the Jewish Club Date field. If we had the union we had in 1953 (or even 1980, for that matter), this employer would not be a problem. Musicians playing with this particular employer would have to be in the union, and the union would simply tell its members, “you can’t play for this employer.” End of story.
To some extent, we have more power than we use. New York has some of the best musicians anywhere. The musicians at the top of their game wanting to secure regular work in New York are, more often than not, members of the union because they know it is a necessity of their professions. This gives the union strength.
Instead of going back to the bad old days of fining members for not playing by the rules, it would be far better to educate our membership as to why each of us is responsible through our actions for the strength of the union.
It’s an old saw that we are as strong as our weakest link. But if we have too many weak links we lose everything. Nobody wants that.
Our choice is simple: a strong union or an ineffective one. There is no in between.