Why Pension Matters

Recording Vice President's Report

Volume 113, No. 7July, 2013

John O'Connor
PENSION, YES! Local 802 Executive Board member Bud Burridge and his son Kai at a Local 802 jazz campaign rally earlier this spring. Pension is one of the main demands. Photo: Walter Karling

PENSION, YES! Local 802 Executive Board member Bud Burridge and his son Kai at a Local 802 jazz campaign rally earlier this spring. Pension is one of the main demands. Photo: Walter Karling

It has been said here before, but it bears repeating that the AFM pension remains perhaps the best benefit that our years of collective bargaining with employers offers. And in spite of the fact that the pension payout multiplier has decreased, the fund is projected to be solvent as far into the future as actuaries will measure.

Many union members understandably bemoan the fact that the multiplier is not what it used to be in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but we often forget that the fat payout rates of that era were the result of the performance of a stock market on steroids that resulted in a great big crash in 2008. Nevertheless, the pension fund continues to operate efficiently and pay pensions to thousands of musicians and will continue to do so for as long as anyone can figure.

I make this observation because the other day at the bargaining table, a lawyer on management’s side made a crack that most people aren’t interested in pensions anymore. I quickly corrected him, saying “Just because management doesn’t like pensions doesn’t mean they’re not a good thing for working people.” It is important for us not to buy into management’s propaganda by berating pensions in general and the AFM pension in particular. A comment was made recently that “pensions have gone the way of the dinosaur.” There are 44 million Americans who are at present eligible or will be eligible for a defined benefit pension, hardly what I would call extinction. Pensions have been and are still a very good idea for working people. Business doesn’t like them because they are costly. But business doesn’t like health care or sick leave or vacations or decent wages or social security either, because they are also costly. Just because pension funds are derided by Wall Street, doesn’t mean they aren’t good for the people.

The AFM pension payout rate is the same now as it was when the fund was first established in 1959. But there is one huge and important difference. The current vesting period is much less than it was 50 years ago and enables a lot more musicians to participate. Our Justice for Jazz Artists campaign continues to be viable in respect to pension benefits because of this fact. When we achieve victory and bring collective bargaining to nightclubs, it will not be long before the first musician is vested in the fund as a result of our struggle.

There is something more important to the usefulness of the pension fund than the payout rate or the length of the vesting period. And that is organizing. The more work that we can cover under collective bargaining outside of our conventional fields, the more opportunity there is for contributions when a musician works. Currently Local 802 is working on several fronts to cover engagements that have previously not been covered by collective bargaining. 54 Below and BAM are a couple of examples. Our organizing targets also include non-union club date employers and ethnic weddings. Recently we hired an organizer who will be targeting the vast territory of Latin music that exists in this city. This has the potential of raising the standards of living for countless musicians.

We occasionally get e-mails and letters criticizing our approach to organizing, especially in respect to the jazz campaign. Why are we going after the major clubs instead of where musicians are really getting screwed? Why don’t we go after the leaders, who actually pay the musicians? Why don’t you find a really famous artist to support the cause (Wynton Marsalis is usually mentioned) and lead us to victory? We appreciate these communications and give them all due consideration. Most members are not aware of the myriad of tactics and ideas that are part of the Justice for Jazz Artists strategy. The campaign’s main thrust has been directed toward six jazz clubs, but where Local 802’s non-symphonic and non-theatrical organizing activities might begin with these six clubs, they certainly don’t end there. An organizing strategy requires surgical precision and focus. You can’t organize everything at once, so you take the road that is going to give you the best chance at some victories and can lead you to more targets. That is what the campaign to bring collective bargaining to the six clubs gets at.

Our organizers are out every week in the club scene throughout the city, speaking with union members and non-union members alike, assessing musicians issues and their support for our jazz campaign and educating musicians as to what the union can do to help fight for fairness wherever musicians work. There is a lot of talk about whether the way we organize should be top down or bottom up, but it needs to be both. The nightclubs that can easily budget for pension allow us a target that will not be able argue that these benefits are not affordable. We’ve done the numbers. We know how much these clubs gross in a year and we know what a microscopic fraction of that amount it will take to pay pension benefits. In the meantime, as we know from the last year and a half of our campaign, our initiative has reached a much higher profile than anytime in the past. We are attracting new endorsements to the campaign every month, both from respected, well known artists and from elected officials on the local, state and national level. So, we are covering all bases, the audiences, the side musicians, the artists, the elected officials, community groups and labor groups.

The goal has to be collective bargaining. This has been the most effective avenue to economic fairness in this country for the past 100 years. Our demand is that the nightclubs sit down and negotiate with us as to what is fair for the musicians and affordable for the clubs. Pension is a very important part of the equation and it is a demand that resonates with both the public and our members. But it’s not everything. Musicians need to have a say about how they are paid and how they are treated in this city and elsewhere. It’s either that or continue to be underpaid and mistreated. Sticking with the union can change that.