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Home » Symphonic Services Division » Internal Organizing During COVID-19

Internal Organizing During COVID-19

  -  AFM Symphonic Services Division Negotiator/Organizer/Educator

There is a lot of information in this issue about how we are working to adapt to what is, hopefully, a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. It would be easy to just take it in and, as an orchestra committee or local officer, start bargaining. We should not forget, however, the often-overlooked process of internal organizing before we sit down with management. This process can have its challenges in “normal” times, but during COVID-19 it is essential that we build power as musicians and workers to ensure we leave this next season with as much, or more, strength than when we started. If we don’t, it will be more difficult to regain in the future what we once had in our contracts.

Even now, the organizing process is the same: talking one-on-one to your colleagues about the issues that are important to them to build power through consensus and ownership. The ways in which we communicate, as well as the issues and goals, may have changed, but there is no more important time to engage our colleagues to build collective strength. While some of our employers will be coming to us from a place of understanding and compassion, the potential is too great for others to try to take advantage of our lack of organization to permanently change the landscape of our contracts and workplaces in the future.

The most common obstacle to organizing under normal circumstances is time. We are usually running to and from rehearsals and concerts, teaching lessons, and juggling family and other commitments, often while traveling to various locations in the process. Many of us are now realizing that we suddenly have a lot of extra room in our schedules. We should take advantage of this time to reach out and have personal conversations with our colleagues (even if it is over Zoom) to see how everyone is doing and to start the discussion about what we will all require to re-enter the workplace.

While bargaining in a pandemic may seem scary at first, it brings up an opportunity to organize around a topic that is usually in the background for us: health and safety. In the news, we have all seen frontline and essential workers organizing around workplace protections to ensure that they don’t bring COVID back to their families. We should do the same, and we must verify that we are taking every one of our colleagues’ interests and concerns into account when we bargain our re-entry to make sure that, whatever the future looks like, we are all protected and are offered a fair share of the work.

When we have these conversations with everyone and track the data we receive (just like we do through our bargaining surveys) we can be confident that we are accurately representing our colleagues as our workplace changes over time. No one knows what the virus may do in the coming months or when a vaccine might be available. For those reasons, we need to know what each of us will require and is comfortable with when it comes to the changes in our workplaces, as well as what types of protective equipment everyone will need and under what conditions we consider it acceptable to return to what we have considered “normal” in the past. If we don’t do this necessary work, we might accidentally cause division among ourselves or, even worse, contribute to the premature end of a colleague’s career due to exposure.

In addition to our contracts, we can use our collective power to help each other and our communities. When we organize in our communities as musicians rather than under the banner of our institutions, we can control our own message and purpose, as well as build our networks for the future. And when we do this work in person, we maintain a more immediate and vibrant presence in our communities as a whole as well as to our audience and donors.

There is unprecedented work being done right now around mutual aid and racial justice, and we often forget about the rich tradition of social justice of which labor unions have always been a part. Some of our colleagues may already be plugging in individually to help foster, or take advantage of, these resources; but by organizing together, we can control our own narrative and our collective power, even when we are not performing. The work that we collectively do for ourselves, and the networks we build now, may be the difference between our institutions’ failure and survival in the future.

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