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Home » Articles » Report on the 2019 AFL-CIO MLK Civil and Human Rights Conference: The Fierce Urgency of Now


Report on the 2019 AFL-CIO MLK Civil and Human Rights Conference: The Fierce Urgency of Now

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international diversity awards

by Lovie Smith-Wright, AFM Diversity Committee Chair and Local 65-699 (Houston, TX) President

First, I would like to thank AFM International President Ray Hair for appointing me to serve on the AFL-CIO MLK Civil and Human Rights Conference planning committee in the fall of 2016. Thus, we have been instrumental in suggesting AFM musicians to fill spots where live music is needed. This year the Davey Yarborough Quartet, members of Local 161-710 (Washington, DC), provided music for the awards program and reception Sunday evening. Yarborough is the director of Jazz Studies at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts.

The 2019 MLK Conference was held January 18-21 at the Washington Hilton. I was excited that the Awards Gala & Reception would be held at the National Museum of African American History & Culture. However, in the week before the conference began, we were notified that, due to the government shutdown, the event had to be moved to Sunday evening at the Washington Hilton.

The Friday afternoon opening session began with conference co-chairs Fred Redmond, international vice president (human affairs) for USW, and Tefere Gebre, AFL-CIO executive vice president, welcoming delegates to Washington, DC. The theme of the conference was “The fierce urgency of now.” Redmond told us that labor must commit to reclaiming Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream of dignity. He reminded us that King’s dream was that all workers and all Americans be treated with dignity. We need to rededicate ourselves to doing the hard work necessary to make that dream a reality.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka gave the keynote address to open the session. In keeping with the theme of the conference, Trumka reminded us of what King called “the fierce urgency of now.” One year before he was killed, King issued a warning that “in this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.” Trumka said, “This is that time. This is a time to take risks; it is time for us to get uncomfortable, because that is how real progress is made.”

After Trumka’s keynote address, we had a town hall conversation with former Tallahassee Mayor and 2019 Democratic Nominee for Governor of Florida Andrew Gillum. President and CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation Melanie Campbell moderated. Gillum spoke about his gubernatorial race. Following a discussion between Gillum and Campbell, there was a short question and answer period for delegates.

AFL-CIO MLK Civil and Human Rights Conference
AFM Diversity Committee Chair and Local 65-699 President Lovie Smith-Wright (left) prepares to take part in the Women’s March on Washington, DC, with granddaughter Morgann Clark.

Friday evening there were several Key Issue Forums: “Women in Leadership: Building on the ‘Year of the Woman,’” “Take Back the Ballot: A Voting Rights Mandate,” and “Mobilizing Rising America: Organizing in the Face of Opposition.” Each of these forums had inspirational featured speakers.

On Saturday morning, we all met at the AFL-CIO building for a Department of Labor Wave Rally and Women’s March on Washington, DC. AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Schuler led the list of speakers for the Labor Wave to #StopTheShutDown rally. Then we took to the streets for the Women’s March.

Sunday morning started with an interfaith service. Reverend Darius Brown of the Christ Baptist Church of Delaware delivered the sermon. Following the service, welcome remarks were made by Representative Karen Bass (D-CA), Congressional Black Caucus chair, and the I AM Campaign’s Kenny Diggs (AFSCME). Tefere Gebre delivered the keynote address for the day.

Following the morning session, my husband (Bob Wright, USW) and I took granddaughter Morgann Clark, to two workshops: “Combating Voter Suppression in the Era of James Crow” and “This Is America: Young, Black, and Union.” She raised her hand to speak at the “Young, Black, and Union” workshop, and told us how to reach out to young people. Everyone applauded her comments and encouraged her to continue speaking up for what she believed in. She was thrilled to be a part of the conference.

I attended the awards gala and reception Sunday evening. The Davey Yarborough Quartet opened the gala with a half-hour of music as the delegates made their way to their tables and then performed an hour of dance music after the awards. The following awards were presented: Eyes on the Prize Award to America Postal Workers Union Local 1 President Keith Richardson; Drum Major for Justice Awards to United Food Commercial Workers International Vice President Robin Williams and Association of Flight Attendants-CWA International President Sara Nelson; Justice, Peace and Freedom Award to United Mine Workers of America International President Cecil Roberts; Defender of the Dream Award to Florida Rights Restoration Coalition Executive Director Desmond Meade; and At the River I Stand Award in honor of former National Vice President for Women and Fair Practices AFGE Augusta Thomas (1932 -2018).

The conference concluded Monday after the delegates spent the morning doing community service. Sites for community service were Stoddard Baptist Global Care, Deanwood Recreation Center, Kelly Miller Middle School, Ron Brown High School, First Baptist Church of Glenarden, and Veterans on the Rise.

Visibility is going to be our lifeline in getting other unions to recognize who we are. It was a great honor and pleasure to represent the AFM at this conference. Someday, I hope more representatives from the AFM will attend, for it is an eye-opening event that the Diversity Committee and other members of the AFM should experience. This conference reminds me of the importance of the labor movement and how, together, we can make a difference in the lives of all working people.







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