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Home » Officer Columns » Harness Collective Power to Organize Work in Venues

Harness Collective Power to Organize Work in Venues

  -  AFM International Executive Board Member and President of Local 161-710 (Washington, DC)

For professional musicians who perform in nightclubs, hotels, and restaurants, access to the protections and benefits of AFM contracts suffered a setback decades ago, which remains with us to this day. A 1982 National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruling, known as the Caribe Hilton decision, dealt a major blow to the AFM’s ability to bargain over contractual standards in these types of venues.

In that ruling, it was determined that the employer of musicians at the Caribe Hilton was the bandleader and not the hotel, which resulted in the loss of AFM representation for the purposes of bargaining. The union had previously represented the musicians employed there for the purposes of collective bargaining.

The negative impact from that ruling continues to reverberate to this day as the ability to collectively bargain with these employers has ceased, wages have stagnated, and benefits, such as unemployment and pension, are no longer available due to the lack of contracts covering this work. Additionally, we are losing touch with generations of musicians who have no idea how the AFM has worked for their benefit and protection throughout our history.

While the inability to collectively bargain with these venues has meant a long-standing pattern of fewer dollars in musician pockets, we are not without options to improve our situation with these employers, regardless of the 1982 NLRB decision.

I am reminded of an Alice Walker quote: “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” Professional musicians have artistic and economic power that can be utilized for their benefit, should they choose to access it. The AFM exists to advocate for and support professional musicians by harnessing the power of that collective.

It all begins with engaging the artists—one-on-one conversations to learn what it is that musicians would like to see change about the business model on which their livelihoods are based. We need to listen to what these professional musicians are telling us. Is the current business model sustainable? If not, what improvements are needed to make it viable? How can we work together to develop and uphold fair standards for our work, such as a prevailing wage?

AFM Vice President Emeritus and former Local 99 (Portland, OR) President Bruce Fife developed the concept of a Fair Trade Music designation, which could be applied to employers who have demonstrated their support for professional musicians. Locals would highlight these “good employers” with the goal of influencing public opinion and support for these businesses.

How can locals work in their communities to develop this concept based on their area standards and informed by their community of professional musicians? Without artists committing to support such standards, the prospects of effecting meaningful change will be difficult.

Of course, these questions are all part of a greater organizing conversation. How best to frame these questions and build the needed consensus would be left to the discretion of our locals. They are certainly in the best position to understand the nuances of the music ecosystems that they service. Grassroots organizing of this nature requires time and effort, but we have access to the best ambassadors for the AFM: our membership. Enlisting member support for this outreach makes sense on many levels.

Article 2 of the AFM Bylaws presents the Federation’s mission statement—a set of principles and objectives whose empowering message is always worth revisiting. It is a call to action. Included among the stated goals are ensuring that we will live and work in dignity, receive fair compensation, and secure control over our work. For those who are unfamiliar with our American Federation of Musicians, this provides a meaningful introduction to the potential of our collective power. In unity, there is strength.

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