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Home » Officer Columns » Executive Board Members » Time to Be a Union

Time to Be a Union


Bruce-Fifeby Bruce Fife, AFM International Executive Board Member and President of Local 99 (Portland, OR)

We are the union. It’s our union, and it works on a pretty simple premise that, when put into practice, can be used to create amazing outcomes. People try to make it more complicated than that, but the basis couldn’t be more straightforward. As members of a union, we have chosen to join forces, to work together, and in doing so, create collective strength and power that allows us to have a collective (there’s that word again) voice in the workplace. Doesn’t matter where the workplace is, or whether you’re sheltered by the protective arm of labor law, or if you decide to go “occupy,” the power structure and founding principles are the same.

So what’s my point? At one of the player conferences this summer, I was approached by a musician engaged in an ongoing struggle in their corner of the industry. They wanted me to know that, even though many of the musicians in that workplace had been silent, they were very supportive of the Federation’s work and activities in resolving the workplace issues. The reason for the silence was completely understandable. They believed that, if they took a public stand, they could lose future work.

As a union officer, it is my job, whenever possible, to protect musicians from any type of retribution from the employer, and if that means that individual can’t take a public stand, so be it. The problem is, if we all stay silent, nothing is ever going to change, as there will be no collective power in the workplace.

There are two main ways to approach this dilemma. The first is the harder one. It means taking a stance, regardless of the consequences and trusting that labor law and the union can protect you over the long term. While the law is on your side, as it’s illegal to punish a worker for concerted union activity, I’d be lying if I say that the employers always follow the law. There can certainly be short-term risk.

The second option is a much safer, but long-term approach. Because much of our employment is segmented into distinct areas of work, and even skill sets, musicians tend to operate in one or two specific areas of the industry. That means that, if we have a union brother or sister in a different sector of the business that needs help, we can step in with little or no danger to our own income stream to provide them the support and power they need in their struggle.

For example, when we were negotiating the TV/Videotape Agreement a while back, we did some informational flyering in front of the various shows. Musicians that work in orchestras or clubs could easily pass out flyers with no fear of retribution because they were not working on those TV shows. By the same token, those musicians working in TV may not do any orchestral work, so they can certainly stand in solidarity with an orchestra that is undertaking an action.

Take it to the next step, and we have unions doing the same thing. It may be possible for us to stand with SAG-AFTRA, in support of their struggles, and have them return the favor when we need it. Or with the Communication Workers  of America (CWA) or the AFL-CIO. We can easily work with them in support of a contract negotiation or a legislative or political campaign and they’ll be right there when we need their help with the same.

Maybe the best example of this is Jobs with Justice. If you’ve got a branch in your area and have worked with them, you know what I’m talking about. Here is their pledge:

“I’ll be there …

… standing up for our rights as working people to a decent standard of living.

…supporting the right of all workers to organize and bargain collectively.

… fighting for secure family-wage jobs in the face of corporate attacks on working people and our communities.

… organizing the unorganized to take aggressive action to secure a better economic future for all of us.

… mobilizing those already organized to join the fight for jobs with justice.

During the next year, I’ll be there at least five times for someone else’s fight, as well as my own. If enough of us are there, we’ll all start winning.”

As you can see, it’s so simple. We stand and work together, or we stand alone and watch it all fall apart. If you only think about yourself and what is best for you, you may get further in the short term. But, if all the wage standards and working conditions that have been fought for come crashing down, your success will be susceptible to those changes as well. Whenever people want to challenge the potential for a race to the bottom in their sector of the industry, I just point them to musicians working in the clubs. Those wages, over time, went from middle class wages with a union, to pay-to-play without a union.

We have to incorporate that Jobs with Justice pledge into our union. If we don’t stand together now, join hands and behave like a union, and stand up for our rights and the rights of those around us, we are going to see the industry wage standards come crashing down. There is no time to wait. No more debate. The time is now. I’ve heard all the excuses. I know we’re all busy and joining in union activities may be new and not feel comfortable. Maybe you don’t agree with some of the strategies. But until you step up, engage, and take on someone else’s struggle, as well as your own, you will never truly understand what it is to be a union­, to feel the power. There has never been a more important time to stand together. It can’t be done alone. Join me now. We are the union!

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