What Can Musicians Learn From Truck Drivers? A Lot!


Volume CI, No. 4April, 2001

Tim Dubnau

Opening a meeting for 50 AFM delegates from around the country to discuss the problem of nonunion film scoring, Andy Banks of the AFL-CIO’s George Meany Center began talking about the Teamster union’s 1998 fight against UPS. Most people in the room probably wondered what on earth Teamsters had to do with musicians. It turned out, a lot.

In 1998, UPS workers were demoralized because they felt their union was becoming increasingly less effective in defending their good union wages against their employer. UPS was pushing workers to work harder and faster, and to lift increasingly heavier packages. Injuries were up. Morale was down. Worse, UPS began shifting full time positions to part time ones. Especially for longtime Teamster members, the situation seemed bleak, with little hope for improvement.

Although UPS workers disliked the company, Banks pointed out, they were not enamored with their union, either. But in less than a year Teamster leadership turned a demoralized membership into perhaps the most powerful union in the country. A ten-day strike brought UPS, a large multinational corporation, to its knees. Many full time positions were created, working conditions improved, and wages shot up.

If you are a recording musician concerned about halting the erosion of union standards in your field, please keep reading.

Months before the strike, the Teamsters’ leadership began working systematically to build an effective communication network among their membership. Workers volunteered to be “liaisons,” which meant that they promised to keep five co-workers in the loop on union issues. As the liaisons began to communicate with their co-workers, two things began happening. First, thousands of people began speaking to one another about their problems, concerns and ideas. Second, the union leadership began hearing from the liaisons about the concerns of the broader membership.

After building the network, the union was able to gather bargaining surveys from a very large portion of UPS workers. It became apparent that the erosion of full-time jobs was a core issue. Action began to replace apathy. Within months, Teamster members began carrying whistles, and would blow them whenever a supervisor began doing union work. That level of militancy would have been unthinkable before the communication network was established.

After contract talks broke down UPS workers went out on strike – angry, unified, and unafraid. The general public sympathized with them. For one thing, most Americans know someone who works part time, and is struggling to survive. Public sympathy grew for the hard-working truck drivers in brown. The union’s message – “America doesn’t work on part-time jobs” – resonated with the public.

“The outcome of negotiations with any company depends on members being well informed about the issues, involved in the bargaining process, and united for a good contract,” says Rand Wilson, Campaign Support Coordinator for SEIU, who has had a great deal of experience in building these kinds of campaigns.

“The contract campaign created a way for members to show UPS that they were united behind the union’s bargaining proposals. ‘Member-to-member’ organizing and on-the-job actions helped to overcome divisions between part time and full time workers and build members’ support for national bargaining proposals,” Wilson points pit. “And support from UPS customers and the community was very important to help build the momentum for members to win.”

Americans really like UPS drivers. They also love musicians. In fact, musicians are in a unique position to gain public support. Audiences have a great deal of empathy for hard working professional musicians who are trying to make a living – and most of our neighbors have a healthy suspicion of large multinational media corporations. Nonunion record labels, film companies and TV stations will not be able to get away with undercutting our field if our membership is united and the public, hearing our message, supports our struggle. We can only win if we try.

Local 802 is starting a communication network in the recording field. Musicians are volunteering to begin a dialogue with five of their co-workers. We hope to have a firm network in place within a few months. If you are a recording musician, you owe it to yourself and your colleagues to participate. Call the New Organizing Department and volunteer. (212) 245-4802. Let’s learn from our Teamster brothers and sisters.