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Home » Officer Columns » Executive Board Members » Local Leadership Should Help Musicians Organize from Within

Local Leadership Should Help Musicians Organize from Within

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

On Monday February 7, the report to President Joe Biden from the White House Task Force on Worker Organizing and Empowerment was released. It is historically significant for organized labor. The task force is chaired by Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh.

The report begins: “The Biden-Harris Administration believes that increasing worker organizing and empowerment is critical to growing the middle class, building an economy that puts workers first, and strengthening our democracy.”

As AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler wrote, “This unprecedented report recognizes the critical role that unions play in creating a fairer economy. By taking steps to give more workers the right to organize and bargain collectively, the administration is once again demonstrating that it is committed to using its powers to support unions.” The full report can be found by following the link at the bottom of this webpage:

After the previous administration’s attacks on the union election process, this news is music to our collective ears. The message is clear and unmistakable: it is a call to organize. As we have heard in AFM President Ray Hair’s remarks, “Organizing and bargaining are the lifeblood of our union.” And, to quote from the AFM Mission Statement: “… we must engage in direct action that demonstrates our power and determination to: Organize unorganized musicians, extending them the gains of unionism while securing control over our industry sectors and labor workers.”

The COVID pandemic has exposed the disparities that exist in our system and the flawed support networks available to professional musicians. At a time when public support for unions is the highest it’s been in 50 years, we find ourselves at an opportune moment. I believe that it is incumbent on our AFM locals to analyze their own music ecosystems and determine how best to support and empower their artist workers through organizing.

The AFM Organizing Training program has been invaluable in providing the tools and techniques necessary to implement organizing programs at our locals. There have been many AFM organizing success stories. At the same time, we understand that much work remains to be done to extend the protections of AFM contracts to professional musicians, whether the issue is fair compensation, job security, workplace safety, or other concerns musicians have with their employment.

I’ve heard it said that when it comes to organizing, musicians aren’t “special snowflakes.” They shouldn’t be viewed differently from any other trade workers. It has been my experience that professional musicians are, in fact, different. Our union would best be served by acknowledging those differences as we seek to have meaningful and empowering organizing conversations.

In fact, I would argue that, in order to do the most effective job of organizing, we should be working with musicians who have knowledge of the conditions in specific areas of music performance to formulate and implement effective strategies and techniques—a sort of hyper-contextualized approach to organizing. I have heard the question put this way: would you rather hire an outside organizer and teach them about the music business, or train a musician to be an organizer? My answer is emphatically the latter.

The reason I say this is because here in Washington, DC, the concerns I hear from musicians can vary widely based on the type of work they are performing—from nightclubs to baroque performance groups, from theater musicians to regional orchestras. I believe the best chance of success in building grassroots support for organizing in these situations is to work from the inside.

An analogy can be made of a musician practicing: there is as much potential for developing bad habits as there is for reinforcing good habits. Likewise, the organizing conversation can be a double-edged sword in terms of its potential to inspire or impede action. By identifying and training organizers among our membership, there is an organic quality instilled in our organizing efforts. It is my hope that local executive boards will guide this process by informing, developing, and refining an approach best suited to the specific needs of their musician community.

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