‘Where Do You See the Union in 10 Years?’

Recording Vice President's Report

Volume 115, No. 10October, 2015

John O'Connor
John O'Connor is the recording vice president of Local 802 and the supervisor of the union's organizing, jazz and single engagement departments

John O’Connor is the recording vice president of Local 802 and the supervisor of the union’s organizing, jazz and single engagement departments

During a meeting to discuss contract proposals with Jazz at Lincoln Center, one of the musicians turned to me and asked me a big-picture question: “Where do you see us in 10 years?” I usually don’t hear questions like this. I asked this musician if he was referring to the future of the Jazz at Lincoln Center orchestra and he said no, he was talking about music, the music profession – and the union. How do I respond to a question like this in just the few minutes we had?

It was a very good question. And it’s probably a question we should all contemplate as union members, because I think it helps lead us in the direction we need go as a union. I joked when the question was asked that sometimes it seems all we can hope for is that there is still good music on the planet in 10 years. O.K., things are not that bleak, but we all know of the trends in popular culture to dumb down musical tastes and to sideline and de-prioritize music education. On the other hand, where I was much more pessimistic about the direction of music 20 years ago, I am much less so today. Living in New York City, I’ve been able to listen recently to some very exciting music that is smart, diverse and fused in exciting and meaningful ways that push toward new sounds while paying homage to historical and geographical foundations. Not only that, but live music seems to be rebuilding an audience. Yes, there are legions of listeners who only hear the mega-famous through their electronic devices, but the pendulum seems to be swinging back to some degree toward a rejuvenation of live music performances on a whole continuum of scale – from cafes to hotels to large concert halls.

Local 802 has perhaps more challenges before us than ever, but we are living in very exciting times where the potential of organizing musicians to build a stronger and more diverse union is more present than it has been in years. The nightclub scene is vibrant. The cabaret scene, boosted by Broadway’s recent success, is recovering. Some hotels in midtown, devoid of music for years, are bringing back music. And where all this (and more) springs up, the organizing opportunities come with it.

As I’ve mentioned before, Local 802’s organizers have been out in the city talking to musicians from all corners of the musical map. In my last two columns, I discussed how we are reaching out to musicians in the burgeoning trad-jazz scene, especially in respect to hotels. But even more doors are opening, and where the music is, we are building a conversation in respect to how musicians can improve their pay and conditions and fight exploitation where they work.

Inspirational union campaigns: 54 Below, Winter Jazzfest and Fair Trade Music.

Inspirational union campaigns: 54 Below, Winter Jazzfest and Fair Trade Music.

One example is the Winter Jazzfest, a series of shows on a weekend in January in Greenwich Village and beyond. A few years ago, Local 802 and activists in the downtown scene organized musicians and won a contract with Winter Jazzfest management that established minimum wages for every musician, resulting in pay raises for many. As part of that contract, the union negotiated recording protections. During the 2015 festival, a French company called KIDAM wanted to tape several bands. It signed onto an AFM agreement that ensured fair payment and benefits for musicians being recorded. KIDAM, recording on behalf of the French television company Mezzo, has yet to make good on its obligation to pay and is now being sued by the AFM. In September we began a pressure campaign to bring KIDAM to justice and get musicians what they are due. Through this process, musicians are learning how to fight unscrupulous employers by building union power.

It has been somewhat of a rule of thumb to follow the money when trying to organize musicians in this city. And as such, we always have our eye on venues that have the budgets to pay musicians according to the standards the union has fought for over the years. Our Justice For Jazz Artists campaign has actually sought to create new standards for musicians playing in the major jazz clubs, meaning those clubs that attract audiences to see the top jazz and blues acts touring the country, paying top dollar admission fees. We’re still looking for our first victory here. But as we continue to build solidarity among musicians, we are getting closer. Our victory in organizing 54 Below as the first union nightclub in memory, breaks the ice by showing that the nightclub-as-employer issue need not be a deal-breaker. Musicians who work at 54 Below are guaranteed minimums and pension benefits. This is not an insignificant landmark for us and gives us an edge toward building other bargaining relationships in the city.

Some more good news: the latest National Labor Relations Board decision makes it easier for unions to petition joint employers at the top of the food chain. This may prove to be a break-through in building campaigns that strip major nightclubs and other money-making institutions of their argument that the bandleader is the employer the union must bargain with. The NLRB has said that is no longer necessarily true. Where musicians are organized and want to bargain with the businesses that hold the purse strings instead of organizing against their bandleader (in most cases, a non-starter), the potential for improvements in pay and benefits in innumerable venues is tremendous.

But what about those clubs and venues that are not as rich as the Blue Note? Local 802 may want to take a page from the Fair Trade Music campaign that has started to gain traction in Seattle and with AFM Local 1000 in the coffeehouse and house concert circuit. Fair Trade Music is setting standards by involving musicians in setting the terms of what is fair and reasonable, without necessarily entering into full-scale collective bargaining. With a mass movement among musicians in New York City, there would be a possibility of a viable fair standards code for all businesses that rely on live music to bring in customers. The solidarity built between musicians at places like Winter Jazzfest, 54 Below and the hotel and bar scene below 42nd Street makes this eventuality not a mere pipe dream.

So back to the big-picture question. Local 802 has an interest in taking part in whichever movement puts more live music on the map in our city. And where we can, we will help make that movement. As far as organizing for respect and dignity for gifted and talented musicians who play the music, that has always been and always will be our mission. If we use our resources to plan carefully, build musician solidarity and move boldly, the future is ours to build.

If you’re a musician interested in improving your wages and working conditions, call us at (212) 245-4802. Ask for the Organizing Department.


As Allegro went to press, studio workers at Avatar recording studio had just voted to form a union with Local 802. An overwhelming majority of workers voted yes in an official NLRB election after our first-ever organizing campaign to represent studio workers. More in the next issue of Allegro.