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Home » Officer Columns » Executive Board Members » ‘Right to Work’ Really Means ‘Right to Work for Less’

‘Right to Work’ Really Means ‘Right to Work for Less’

  -  International Vice President and President of Local 257 (Nashville, TN)

The post-WWII legislation known as “Right to Work,” which is still on the books in 28 states, is one of the great misnomers of all time. It sounds kind of noble, but what it really means is “Right to Work for Less.” In other words, you have the right to work for as little as you choose, give up your intellectual property rights and all future revenue streams from your work. If you have a choice, why would you do that?

You do have a choice, and AFM contracts are the solution. There are many ways for projects to fall through the cracks and end up without a contract. Maybe no one brought it up, or everyone assumed that it was being taken care of by someone else, or perhaps someone thought they could get away with paying you far less than you deserve. One thing is for sure: When you work without the standards of pay and protection of an AFM contract—or “off the card” as we say in Nashville—what you make that day is all you will ever make, and you are definitely leaving money on the table.

Despite Tennessee being one of those 28 “Right to Work” states, the music industry brings a lot of money to the state’s economy. Even so, a Tennessee legislator who works for an anti-union law firm in another state wants to make it more difficult to remove the 1947 Right to Work law from the books by embedding it into the state constitution. The industry-funded supporters of this self-serving and redundant legislation claim that low wages and no workplace guidelines are why companies come to Tennessee—like that’s a good thing.


Many of our legislators obviously do not seem to understand that Tennessee became a music center in spite of, and not because of, Right to Work.

Ironically, this organic system of mutual respect between creators and employers evolved in the decade after Right to Work was passed in 1947. When Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley were hired by RCA and Decca to run their new Nashville divisions in the 1950s, they immediately established that their recording work would be done under AFM contracts. Because of this simple concept, musicians and their beneficiaries have been getting paid for additional uses of classic records by Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, and Roy Orbison. That tradition continues with new uses of classic and contemporary records paying musicians additional money at a time it is most needed, proving the lasting value of putting your work on an AFM contract.

This is what made Nashville into Music City: mutual respect and cooperation, not intimidation. No one is forced to be a member of Local 257. People like Dolly Parton, Keith Urban, Larry Carlton, Ray Stevens, Trisha Yearwood, Peter Frampton, and more than 2,200 other musicians are AFM 257 members because they want to be. We have signatory agreements with rock icons like Dan Auerbach, Dave Stewart, John Oates, and Jack White, who live and record in Nashville. They know that the AFM looks out for musicians, and they want to be responsible employers, so they do the right thing by putting it “on the card.”

We have seen that most employers who avoid working under AFM contracts do so because they do not want to pay musicians what they deserve. You can find many of them on the AFM International Unfair List elsewhere in this magazine. Sometimes all it takes is a respectful conversation with the employer and/or your fellow musicians, but someone has to speak up.

I was that person many times, and it does get easier with time. If you need help having that conversation, we can give you the talking points you need. For starters, you can explain that AFM contracts protect the employer as well as the musicians, which is absolutely true. Legitimate licensing agencies know they are supposed to pay musicians for their work, and not just the artist and label. The AFM contract gives us the ability to go get that money directly, and let the artist and label keep their share. We can “clean up” some projects after the fact, but it is always better for everyone if it’s done right on the front end.

The refusal of some employers to discuss the possibility of a union contract makes it obvious they have no respect for musicians. We will continue to do what’s right and promote responsible behavior and mutual respect, but it’s more important now than ever to know that you can make a difference. Let us help you protect yourself.