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Home » Symphonic Services Division » Joining the Union—What’s in It for Me?

Joining the Union—What’s in It for Me?


by Jane Owen, AFM Symphonic Services Division Negotiator

I realize I’m preaching to the faithful here. If you are reading this article, you are probably a union musician, and interested enough to learn more about your union’s structure, inner workings, and ability to help you as a professional musician. But you may have been asked this question by some of your fellow musicians, especially if you live and work in a so-called “right to work” state.

Post-pandemic orchestras are seeing lots of changes in personnel, and newly hired musicians who may not be familiar with unions probably need an explanation about the power of collective bargaining. Additionally, many orchestras are back to negotiating multi-year agreements. A strong union presence in the orchestra, through orchestra committees, union stewards, and a high percentage of union membership among the musicians will be even more important to enforce those agreements over the next seasons.

Fortunately, unions are experiencing a resurgence in popularity and visibility in many professions. Workers confronted with business closures during the pandemic, then experiencing a return to work afterward, want to have more say about the quality of their work experience and how it is expressed in job security, salaries, and working conditions. Experienced musicians and committee members can use union activity that’s in the news to help explain that participation in their own union can make a real difference. Unlike the struggles to form unions that employees are having with some companies, our union has 126 years of experience and knowledge to help every orchestra at the negotiation table.

To reach new musicians, and others who may not have joined the AFM yet, have an orientation meeting and distribute information packets. Include your orchestra’s collective bargaining agreement (CBA), players’ association bylaws, and local bylaws, as well as contact information for local officers, orchestra committee members, and union stewards. Explain that these fellow musicians are available to help with problems or questions that may come up. A newly hired musician may only have been introduced to management personnel when they began work and may not be aware of union representatives available in the workplace. You might have a veteran musician write up a labor history of your orchestra, explaining benefits won over years of bargaining, and include that in the packet.

Schedule regular meetings with the musicians, and always have an agenda. You can choose to invite all musicians for the first part of the meeting, but excuse musicians who are not union members, if negotiation issues are going to be discussed. Make it clear every time that musicians can join the union at any point to participate in these discussions and have a voice and a vote when negotiations occur.

This can also be effective during preparation for negotiations. When surveying the musicians about topics for bargaining, let musicians know they can join the union to take part in the survey. Advise nonmembers that they can take part in the survey, negotiation discussions, and eventually voting on ratification, only if they are members in good standing. Send this message out at each step, along with a link for joining the AFM.

Between negotiations, have committee members engage in one-on-one talks with all musicians, members and nonmembers, to have a better understanding of what issues might be percolating during the term of the agreement. Assign a balanced number of musicians to each committee member who then checks in with them periodically and keeps encouraging those who are not union members to join.

Be sure your musicians see publications from their player conferences (Regional Orchestra Players Association, International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians, and Organization of Canadian Symphony Musicians), including settlement bulletins from other orchestras. Perhaps start a newsletter for your own orchestra, which features the musicians. It also could include updates about work the local and orchestra committee are doing on the musicians’ behalf, including grievances filed, attendance at local labor council events, and other collective actions. Add a general article about labor history and the history of your local. Start (or continue) an annual potluck Labor Day picnic and invite all musicians and their families. Stress to nonunion and union members how their input is important and that they can have a role in bringing about the changes they would like to see.

The AFM Symphonic Services Division can offer training to your committee about having an effective organizing conversation and putting the ideas discussed here into action. We are all the union, and we get results when we work together.

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