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Home » Officer Columns » President's Message » Coping with Fear Through Collective Action

Coping with Fear Through Collective Action

  -  AFM International President

Looking ahead in this pandemic-driven time of political and economic uncertainty, professional musicians, whether working in the gig economy as freelancers or employed under orchestral or theatrical collective bargaining agreements, are coping with the fear being used to exploit us by employers and by politicians on the local, regional, and federal levels. Fear is the stalking horse of uncertainty. The longer the virus is out of control, the deeper the economic misery, and the slower the recovery.

The virus-enforced isolation also reinforces patterns of individualism—an attitude that self, the individual, is more important than the group. This dynamic is regularly promoted by our employers, promoters, purchasers, and booking agents. In contrast, collectivism emphasizes cohesiveness among individuals and prioritizes the group over self. For obvious reasons, employers fear collective action.

Collective, concerted activity is difficult enough to achieve in good times. But when times are bad, it’s individualism over collectivism— “every man for himself.” Workplace divisiveness empowers employers and weakens our negotiating position.

One antidote for fear is sticking together, because we are stronger together. I’m hoping that COVID consequences can motivate us toward collective action. The pandemic long haul that we are mired in should not be met with resignation. It should reinforce our determination to achieve fairness and make a difference. More than ever, a collective approach toward our employers is necessary.

Organizing a collective approach during pandemic conditions is challenging when, for safety reasons, you can’t have mass meetings, and you are worried about in-person or home meetings with co-workers and committee folks. And with rampant uncertainty and unemployment, fewer of us are willing to take chances when worried about finding another job.

Many of you have experienced the fear mongering and bullying of employers and managers who seek to impose regressive terms and conditions of employment, and not just during the pandemic period, but in good times.

Generally, employers don’t give you things because they like you, or have a heightened sense of benevolence, or moral responsibility. Unions exist because the power of the employer to control your fate demands an organized response. The pandemic has made unionism more important now than at any other time in our lives. Fighting for our livelihood while we are seeing a pandemic reshape the world economy will not be won by begging for scraps from the boss’s table. We have to manage fear and uncertainty by organizing to save ourselves. Again, that depends on all of us sticking together, because we are stronger together. Collectivism.

Employer-driven attitudes are used to define our relationships with them, providing a backdrop and context when we bargain collectively. And believe me, whether you perform as a freelancer or under a collective agreement, you’ll likely have to bargain your way back into a job when the virus recedes.

In contract discussions, employers like to script our roles as rank and file, committee people, and union reps. Assessing the attitudes of local, collectively bargained employers, particularly those in the orchestral and theatrical sectors, I’ve divided them into three buckets.

First, we have employers that are mindful of community responsibility, that are genuinely dedicated to the men and women of the orchestra and understand the need to preserve and protect artistic integrity. Those employers will work with the committee and the union to overcome adversity and foster a vision. They will look toward innovation and will involve the community in providing for the needs of the institution. They will raise and deploy capital. This group will do what is honest and necessary to survive the pandemic and allocate resources to keep musicians safe.

Second, we have employers who are risk-averse, are precautionary and conservative, with no real imagination. Even if they had some creativity, they would be slow to allocate existing assets toward new ideas or raise needed capital from the community to protect the institution. Even in a good year, they tread water in the interest of survival and longevity but have no growth direction. This group will hunker down against the pandemic to conserve existing cash and assets, which does not include protecting musicians. They don’t aim to hurt you, but they aren’t going to help you either.

Third, we have employers that view the pandemic as the ticket to force the concessions they’ve always wanted from musicians. I would describe these employers as vulture capitalists who see a once-in-a-lifetime chance to impose steep regression since it won’t look so bad to the public in a pandemic. They will hold your livelihood and your family hostage unless you give them everything they ask for. They are less interested in community concern for artists and the art form, and more about preserving capital at the expense of musicians. They could care less that the perfection of our performances is the reason that capital and assets were built and acquired in the first place. But against the backdrop of the pandemic, musicians are seen as disposable, as a liability. Managers in this employer group see themselves as the real institutional asset, prioritizing management needs over those of musicians. Some are union busters who, if they can, will make you crawl back in on your belly after the pandemic nightmare has ended.

The lines have already been drawn. The script has been written by the employers. It goes like this:

“The union and the orchestra need to understand that we are all in this together, and we will all have to do our part to save the institution.”

That’s as if we were partners—we are always junior partners in the success of the institution, but we are senior partners in the face of disaster. I’ve never bought into any of this “partner” horse-hockey. Do they come around with bonuses when we play so well the nightclub breaks the bar record, or when a big institutional surplus is achieved from ticket sales and donations? No, they never do.

Contrary to their script, we are not in business with them. They are in business for us.

Next month—Is a Union Resurgence Underway During the Pandemic?

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