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Home » Officer Columns » The Power of ‘Yes’

The Power of ‘Yes’


I believe in unionism. I always have, from my earliest working days as a carpenter. I tried to join the Carpenters Union (closed shop, had to know someone). When I transitioned into being a professional, full-time musician, I joined the AFM. I’m not sure why I always felt that unions were a good thing. I didn’t grow up in a union household, quite the opposite. It just always made sense to me.

There are many people that feel the same way, but there are few institutions that can create such a wide range of pro and con, debate and controversy. Mighty forces are constantly at work to destroy us because of the real, or even potential, power unions wield. In Oregon, we have fortunately just dodged a bullet, as anti-labor initiatives, the same kind that changed the labor power structure in Michigan and Wisconsin, have been withdrawn. But it won’t stop. They’ll regroup and come back at us again.

Why, as a local and international officer, am I making such an obvious declaration? Sometimes, it’s important to say it “out loud.” While I’ve always believed in the good that can come from being a member, that doesn’t mean I’ve always lived it. Not for any nefarious reason. It just wasn’t on the top of my “to do” list. I was an extremely busy working musician, focused on my music and the normal survival challenges that we musicians face. I went about my work without giving it much thought. I filed my contracts, paid my dues, and received services and support. I just wouldn’t have considered myself an active unionist. Two things changed that: officers at Local 99 reached out and recruited me into activities at the local, and when they reached out, I said, “yes.”

Unbeknown to me at the time, it was one of those defining moments that take place during our lives—game changers. In hindsight, I can look back and see what I did not know then: this was one of those choices that my life’s road map is littered with, and that forever altered my course.

I’m using this setup to help articulate that the union looks very different, depending on where you stand. To the corporate or nonprofit world, we might appear to be a threat or pain in the rear. To a member musician, there is a wide range of viewpoints, from “they saved my job, got me a raise”, to “they just want my dues,” and everything in between. And nonmember musicians, especially if they’re young, may not know we exist, and/or may have no understanding of the historical and present day accomplishments and benefits of unions.

I’ll get to the point. My life changed immeasurably when I became directly involved with the union and that eventually led to my elected positions. Since that first day as an officer, I have come into my office, the concert halls, clubs, and theaters, and worked daily to improve the work world for musicians. There have been significant successes, a few losses, but overall, I’m in the win column. I can look back and feel good about what’s been accomplished.

Here’s where I have my struggles. The hard part is not sitting across the bargaining table from an employer that wants to give you pennies for your talent, or negotiating with a purchaser who has stiffed you on your gig. It is the challenge of inspiring and motivating musicians to work on behalf of themselves and their fellow musicians, to become engaged union activists and advocates. At a meeting I recently attended for a newly forming jazz advocacy group, I was chastised, called a “failure,” because we had been unable to organize a local theater. The irony is that, for years, I have been working with a significant number of the musicians for this theater, trying to move them towards a union representation vote. No luck. There is no shortage of complaints about working conditions and wages, but few are willing to take a stand and fight back.

I know we’re all busy, and engaging in union activities will certainly cut into some of your free time. I know fear plays a role when you take on an employer. There are laws that protect you, though we know that may not stop an employer from violating those laws. You may not even agree with the union’s strategies or course of action. There are always good excuses, but at the end of the day, none of them matter, because if we want to bring any real change to our workplaces, we have to engage, help determine the proper strategies, and work to fix what’s not right.

As this administration takes up the mantle of organizing, both internal and external, if we are to earn the wages that we and our talent are worth, we have to say “no” to bad paying gigs and convince our colleagues to do the same. Every time we work off contract or under scale, we weaken ourselves and everybody else. Some fear that standing up to an employer might put us in jeopardy, but we diminish that fear by building such solid relationships with our fellow members and musicians in the community, that all of us will be willing to put ourselves on the front line. Power in our numbers means pressure can be applied without damage to the individual. We have to be willing to step out of that safe, but miserable space, and take those first, new, sometimes fearful, steps towards organizing for better conditions in our workplaces.

The Frederick Douglas quote on my office door says it all: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, and rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.”

Let’s do this: say “yes” when we come asking, because we will certainly say “yes” when you do.

by Bruce Fife, AFM International Vice President and President of Local 99 (Portland, OR)

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