Every month, Allegro prints a column called “Why We Joined the Union” where members who have recently joined Local 802 say something about what brought them to do so. A typical answer will have to do with an engagement a musician was offered that required union membership. Others, who may not have thus far been offered unionized work, write that they joined because union membership might help their careers. I’ve known of musicians who have joined in order to take advantage of our inexpensive rehearsal space and instrument insurance. Still others have joined to take part in the union’s health plan through their teaching work.
There are also those musicians who keep up their membership in the union more as a matter of honoring a long-held tradition of fraternity that the musicians’ union represents. Sadly, this is a waning sentiment that is held more often than not by our older members. I know several jazz musicians who are members of Local 802 for this reason. They have very few opportunities for engagements covered by union benefits and protections, but they see the union as a social compact with their brothers and sisters. (Some union members – me included – still like to refer to their fellow members as “brothers and sisters.” For some, the cultural importance of union membership is as important – or more important – than the benefits and protections of union membership.)
But the reason for joining the union that I rarely see is actually the most important one in my mind. Musicians who play music as a career – or who hope to play music as a career – should be members of the union because a stronger union is good for the entire profession. And a union gains its strength by its numbers.
There are too many musicians who are not members of the union because they don’t see the relevance of the union to their professional lives. On one hand, this might be understandable. Musicians who are not ordinarily covered by a union contract don’t derive any apparent benefit from the union. But on the other hand, it doesn’t really make sense when you think about it on a deeper level. A guitar player who is playing nonunion gigs in local clubs and restaurants may not get any immediate benefits just by being a member of Local 802. But that fact is a consequence of not enough musicians being in the union. Musicians who say the union is irrelevant to them do not take into consideration that the union is “irrelevant” to a large extent because they themselves have not become members and have not worked to make the union meaningful in the places where they work. If by some miracle we could persuade every musician next week to join the union, the way musicians in this city are treated would change dramatically.
I’ve written in past columns of my experience in organizing and establishing AFM Local 1000, the union representing folk musicians and singer/songwriters on the folk music circuit. A few decades ago at a conference called the Great Labor Song Exchange, my brother and sister folkies were discussing how we felt the AFM was irrelevant to us – but we were discussing it in the context of what we might do about it. As we talked about it, questions came up. I asked, what does the AFM local in Seattle (where I lived at the time) have to do with my work as a performer who travels around the country playing folk society concerts, coffeehouses, house concerts and folk festivals? Those good folks in Local 76-493 barely even knew that my professional world existed. This was the sentiment that was held by those in our corner of the music business.
It so happened that this sort of discussion transpired between many of us who, AFM members or not, believed that trade unionism was an important part of the fabric of any democratic society. Many of our ilk learned this from our musical inheritance. Before us had come the songs of the mineworkers, the IWW, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. It was sewn into our musical fabric, if not our personal histories. For me it was also woven into my personal history, having started my working life in an industrial city in the Midwest, where I first became involved in the labor movement as a factory worker. Of course, it didn’t hurt that I also knew Woody Guthrie’s repertoire and had gleaned onto the poetry of Carl Sandburg, which captured the industrial and human heap of Chicago in the early 20th century.
What we believed in and had observed, at least through history, was the power of the union as a collective force that holds the greatest of human power, the control of production that makes everything in society possible. But what was in our heads and in our hearts had not translated into our own profession. As entertainers who often sang about the stories of workers who overcame great obstacles to assert collective power, we felt a bit chastened by the fact that we hadn’t grappled with the shortcomings of our own professional union.
From that day forward, a few of us vowed to struggle for a place in our union. When, after years of efforts, we ended up with the first “non-geographical” local in the AFM, specifically designed for traveling folk musicians, we adopted the recruitment slogan, “Now there’s a reason to join the union. Because it’s ours.”
What does this have to do with Local 802? There are thousands of musicians in this city who are not in the union. I would venture to guess that a great deal of them believe that unions are a good thing in general, but have not found it in themselves to join us. They ask, “Why should I join the union? It doesn’t do anything for me or musicians like me.” But that is the wrong question to ask. The proper question is the one that a handful of folk musicians asked themselves in Silver Spring, Maryland in 1984: “How do I get the union to work for me?” And the first step to answering that question is to join the union. As they say about the lottery, “You’ve got to be in it to win it.”
One of the differences between us folkies in 1984 and the unorganized musicians in New York City of today is that the AFM was much less open to change than Local 802 is at this moment. The current Executive Board of Local 802 is more flexible and innovative than possibly any Executive Board since the John Glasel administration was elected more than 30 years ago. The resources and initiatives extended by the union to help musicians in the nightclub and restaurant scenes in this city have not been insubstantial. It’s a Herculean task, no doubt, to end the exploitation of musicians – something that is rampant in this city. Some will say it’s impossible. But I am not among them, because I know what the power of a union can achieve.
I also think we are on the precipice of a new labor movement in this country, inspired by such campaigns as the Occupy movement, the fast food worker campaign, and the youth movements exemplified by mass demonstrations stemming from the deaths in Ferguson and Staten Island last year.
Local 802 is the best possibility for a place to start. It has resources that no other musicians’ organization has. It is not only open to making New York a better place for all musicians to work, it is doing what it can to lead the way. The only thing we lack are those musicians in this city who should – but haven’t – joined in the effort. But we’re working on it. Our reps are in the field more than any time in Local 802’s history, talking to hundreds of musicians to try to pave the way for organizing musicians’ power in this city.
Our task, as members, is to make the argument to our musical colleagues that whether or not they have a job that requires them to be in the union, there is ample reason to become a member and join the effort to fight the good fight in a world that has become greedier and more corporate. Our choice is to allow the inequities to continue to grow – or to stop moaning and organize.
The next time you consider letting your membership lapse because you are not currently doing union work, remember the most important reason for being in the union: because it’s ours!
Guitarist, singer-songwriter and poet John O’Connor is the recording vice president of Local 802, and the supervisor of the union’s organizing, jazz and single engagement departments.