October marks the 125th Anniversary of the American Federation of Musicians. This column describes the founding of the AFM, introducing a special anniversary supplement included in this issue of the International Musician. I hope you enjoy this historic look back at the beginning years of our union.
It was October 1896, 125 years ago. Musicians from locals affiliated with the National League of Musicians and from other musicians’ locals directly affiliated with the American Federation of Labor met in Indianapolis, Indiana, to build the union of their dreams.
The 1890s were a dangerous time for unions. The idea of bringing workers together from across a country or continent to meet and discuss broad workplace goals throughout an entire industry did not sit well with employers of musicians, or with any other employers for that matter. Unions were reeling under pressure. Lives and families were at risk.
In Chicago, the 1886 Haymarket Riot over the eight-hour workday left 11 people dead. Bosses would tell unions to accept steep pay cuts in exchange for recognition. And when that didn’t happen, there were lockouts and riots. Soldiers escorted scab replacement workers into the workplace. The courts sided with employers against union leaders, ensuring that unions would be broken.
It was an enormous power struggle, with business owners saying that every worker should have the right to deal directly with the employer rather than be represented by a union. Sound familiar? It should. We hear the same song sung today, 125 years later.
The company bosses called it “worker freedom.” And I’ll repeat the refrain from back in the day when our union was born: “worker freedom” is nothing more than the “right to work for as long a time and for as little money as the employers can impose.”
It was against this background of fear, uncertainty, instability, and great risk that musicians traveled considerable distances to meet in Indianapolis to find ways to improve the lives of musicians everywhere. They didn’t do this because they were consumed by petty differences with each other. They did it because they believed that by working together, they could save lives.
They believed that musicians deserve dignity and respect for what we do—for our high level of skill and creativity, for our level of professionalism, and for the joy we bring to this world. Our founders came together because they believed in fairness, and because they understood that we are STRONGER TOGETHER. They believed by working together as a team, we could offer hope to those seeking refuge from the perils of life as a musician.
Today, 125 years later, that vision of common purpose still stands in our locals, at our conferences, at our international conventions, and out there in Federationland. We know there is far more to gain in unity than from division.
What did musicians face when they sought to form their local and national unions more than 125 years ago?
The first musicians’ unions organized locally and independently, primarily in the eastern US in places such as New York City, Boston, Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, and St. Louis. Baltimore and Chicago had musicians’ unions as early as 1857.
Fierce labor conflict was prevalent in the US industrial workplace until the 1930s. A great deal of blood was spilled to eventually obtain the statutory right to bargain collectively with employers through the Wagner Act, adopted by the Congress in 1935.
Because workers’ efforts to improve wages and conditions were looked upon unfavorably by powerful social and political forces and the moneyed business interests behind them, local unions disguised themselves as social clubs or burial societies to present a benign face to business. Locals assessed membership dues and earmarked a portion of it for a death or burial benefit. Some AFM locals today still carry the words “Benevolent Association” or “Protective Society” in their trade names—a throwback to the early days of unionism when overt activism toward employers was fraught with certain risk.
Since it was illegal until the mid-1930s to engage in concerted activity to pressure employers to raise wages, the early locals from the 1870s onward focused primarily on improving the social status of musicians. An issue that developed among the locals concerned whether musicians’ unions should determine membership eligibility by audition—by how well a musician could play—or whether to admit anyone who worked, or intended to work, as a musician.
The issue of artist vs. laborer, elite vs. common, and proficient vs. ordinary mushroomed into a debate over the choice of whether to admit only the most talented individuals into the union or to allow into the fold any person who would compete for members’ employment. This is still an ongoing debate: Why ask everybody to join? Do we organize everyone? Or just the best?
From 1871 to 1881, 17 independent musicians’ locals organized into a group called the National Musicians Association. They were mainly concerned with difficulties caused by traveling musicians and road show competition. The organization failed, however, because the locals were weak. They were loose-knit groups of musicians who would come together and discuss issues while never really agreeing upon plans of action to develop or implement.
Later, the National League of Musicians (NLM) was formed and operated from 1886 to 1904. There were 15 independent NLM locals in 1887. That number increased to 79 by 1896. The big concern continued to be the debate of whether musicians were artists or workers.
The voting system of the time was another contentious issue. With one vote per member, the big eastern locals controlled the NLM because they had the most members.
In early 1896, Samuel Gompers asked the National League of Musicians to affiliate with the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The AFL had formed in 1886 from a coalition of craft unions that had become disenchanted with another national labor organization, the Knights of Labor (KoL). The KoL opened its doors to all workers, skilled and unskilled, except for doctors, lawyers, bankers, liquor dealers, and gamblers.
Despite its claims of inclusiveness, the KoL made little headway toward organizing predominately Catholic Irish-Americans, reportedly due to the influence of Freemasonry. Catholics were prohibited from associating with masonic organizations. Gompers and the AFL offered an alternative by organizing along the jurisdictions of the early craft guilds. Gompers was looking to establish a “room in labor’s house” for professional musicians.
Gompers, however, could not get the NLM to go along with him. Unlike the NLM, the AFL promoted organizing and the all-in labor union approach towards craft workers, which included musicians. The NLM, led by proponents of the elitist ideology, was not interested in the AFL’s philosophy of let’s organize and unite everyone who works or wants to work for money.
The AFL organizers reasoned that an elitist approach toward unionism would eventually create a cadre of willing and able non-union replacement workers that would be used by employers to divide, disunify, and destroy the union. By working to involve and represent the entire workforce of a given craft, the AFL believed the opportunity existed for each craft to deal with employers on an industrywide basis to improve wages and conditions.
Gompers, undeterred by elitist dogma, dealt with the NLM’s stubborn opposition by bypassing the organization’s leadership and instead chartering its locals directly as AFL-affiliated musicians’ locals.
The first AFM convention, called and organized by Gompers, was held in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1896. Seventeen of the 26 AFL-chartered locals in attendance were also locals of the NLM. This demonstrated a startling show of interest from NLM locals that had urged the NLM to join with the AFL but were prevented from doing so.
The current president of AFM Local 3 (Indianapolis, IN), Marty Hodapp, tells the story that at the AFM’s 1896 inaugural convention, the local delegates from Cincinnati and St. Louis tossed a coin to settle a contest over which local would be charted first. Cincinnati won the toss, becoming Local 1, while St. Louis became Local 2.
Owen Miller, a musician from Europe, was elected as the first AFM president and began to charter new AFM locals, alongside those still entrenched in the old NLM. In May 1901, after President Miller had served for nearly five years, Joe Weber was elected the AFM’s second president at the AFM’s 5th convention and served until 1940.
The NLM disbanded at its 1904 convention and the Musical Mutual Protective Union of New York, the flagship NLM local, dissolved and merged with one of the other 15 New York City musicians’ unions, all independent except for one—AFM Local 41. The AFM chartered the merged local as Local 310, Manhattan.
As we celebrate our storied 125 year history, we see that the historical and fundamental challenges our founders faced in unifying professional musicians to establish, preserve, protect, and defend this great union are much the same as they are today. Now, as then, we heartily accept these challenges, and we will spare no effort to improve the lives of professional musicians everywhere.Read More