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Building a Movement in Boise

todd jelen

by Todd Jelen, AFM Symphonic Service Division Negotiator/Organizer/Educator

I was wrapping up a negotiation in Charleston, West Virginia, when I received an email from AFM President Ray Hair, SSD Director Rochelle Skolnick, and Director of Organizing and Education Michael Manley forwarding a request that came through the AFM website. The Boise Philharmonic Orchestra’s (BSO) principal flautist, Allison Emerick, was reaching out to inquire about organizing the musicians of the Boise Phil. We get requests like this each year, and most of them never go past a few phone calls before the effort is abandoned for one reason or another. This time something was different. As I found out in my first conversation with Allison that night as I drove back to Ohio, the musicians in Boise seemed determined to change their situation.

The next question was: Would they commit to doing the work? In the ensuing conversations with the organizing committee, we talked about the issues facing musicians in their workplace. Past agreements had been broken or ignored, and the musicians felt like they had no voice concerning the future of their orchestra. Rochelle, Michael, and I gave them a view of the organizing process and the amount of work that would be needed.

We explained that we could train and guide them, but if this effort was going to be authentic, they would have to do the work. The organizing committee agreed and committed to the rigorous process—and to each other. We held conference calls with the committee at least biweekly (if not weekly) at every stage of the campaign to complete the many tasks ahead of us. We gathered information on the BPO Board of Directors and the community in Boise to build the most complete map of both our opportunities as well as our potential challenges. The Idaho AFL-CIO office was instrumental in helping gather this information. President Joe Maloney, Legislative Director Jason Hudson, Teresa Thomason, and Tracie Roberts, as well as everyone at the IBEW Local 291 deserve commendation for their efforts during this entire process.

AFM Symphonic Service Division Negotiator/Organizer/Educator Todd Jelen (far right) speaks with Boise Philharmonic Orchestra Organizing Committee members Kate Jarvis and Allison Emerick during organizing training in Boise last year.

Then we determined whom we needed to talk to. Due to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) criteria for our industry, quite a few subs and extras qualified to be organized in addition to contract musicians. This number grew because more musicians met the criteria as the season continued. The list included 125 musicians by the end of the process. We then ranked the list according to the committee members’ experiences and past conversations with each individual. This spreadsheet would become the magnum opus of the campaign. Every detail was tracked and, over time, we were able to make surprisingly accurate predictions about how individuals and factions within the orchestra might side on a given issue. It helped us plan our strategies and it even helped us predict the outcome of the ballot down to one vote.

The next step was to train the organizing committee. Michael and I traveled to Boise for three days of training to get the committee oriented to what they would be facing. The training included the legal rights of workers on the job, the right to organize, how to build transformative rather than transactional relationships, concerted activity, labor history, and, most importantly, the organizing conversation.

The organizing conversation is the model we use to connect with our colleagues. It can, and should, be applied to any and all facets of what we do in the union movement. It is neither an elevator pitch nor a transactional one-sided conversation to extol a list of benefits one might get for joining the AFM in the hopes of “convincing” someone to be involved. Instead, the organizing conversation offers anyone who takes the time to train and practice the opportunity to connect with people in an unparalleled way and guide colleagues through their own thought processes to make their own decisions and to solve their own issues. If done well, and conversing with people interested in change, it will start a movement!

Over the next few months, we systematically held conversations with almost all of the musicians on our list. One by one, we filled out the larger picture of what it would look like to organize in Boise. Once musicians committed to the movement and signed cards, they were brought into the fold through meetings designed to inoculate against a possible anti-union campaign and to help them understand their rights in this process, including their right to participate in concerted activity. To keep musicians updated and engaged, each phase of this schedule occurred monthly, with new people coming into the process through organizing conversations each month. As more and more people became involved, the momentum built until we knew we had enough support to move forward and hold a successful vote.

After five months of intensive work, the musicians succeeded in starting a movement in Boise. Based on the extraordinary and diligent work of the BPO Organizing Committee and the commitment and participation of the musicians of the BPO, recognition was quickly achieved. The musicians are unified and focused on the goal of achieving a binding contract with growth as well as working to charter a new AFM local in Boise.

Just prior to the 101st convention of the AFM, the International Executive Board approved the charter of new Local 423 in Boise.

I have been privileged to build a truly transformative experience with both the organizing and orchestra committees of the BPO. We still have some distance to go together as we continue to work towards BPO’s first AFM contract, but I know that the determination of these fine musicians will continue, and the Boise Philharmonic will flourish in the future as the AFM’s newest orchestra.

boise philharmonic

The Boise Philharmonic: A Textbook Example of How to Organize

boise philharmonic

As the 78 members of the Boise Philharmonic Orchestra (BPO) sat in their chairs and prepared to start their Hollywood Hits concert on March 30 (during which film clips would be projected above the stage while the orchestra played the accompanying soundtrack) attendees could not help but notice nearly all the musicians were wearing matching blue and white lapel pins. Before the concert started, BPO Principal Clarinetist Carmen Izzo came on stage, asked for the audience’s attention, and read a statement from an open binder in his hands.

“Before we move on to our feature presentation, I bring some news directly from the musicians of the Boise Philharmonic. This past week, our musicians voted overwhelmingly to come together in union and be represented by the American Federation of Musicians,” Izzo said to loud applause. “Our musicians see this as an important step toward a bright future in which we can be heard as professionals. We hope our management accepts these election results and continues to work with us to move our orchestra forward.”

boise philharmonic

After the performance, BPO musicians met with patrons in the lobby to answer questions about their announcement. Anyone who approached them saw that the matching pins the musicians all wore said, “Hear Us.”

This March 30 announcement was actually the culmination of about six months’ worth of education, training, organizing, and outright legwork on the part of the BPO Organizing Committee—assisted by organizers from the AFM—that brought the newest orchestra into the AFM fold.

“This is a textbook example of how to do everything right from an organizing standpoint,” says Rochelle Skolnick, AFM director of Symphonic Services, assistant to the president, and special counsel.

“It’s a great model to follow,” agrees Michael Manley, director of the AFM Organizing and Education Division, who assisted the Boise musicians. “They really created a movement in Boise.”


The BPO is the preeminent, and oldest, classical music organization of Idaho. The orchestra has worked for decades under a so-called “master agreement” with its board of directors, as negotiated by the musicians on the orchestra committee. For at least the past 10 years, however, there has been a growing unease among musicians regarding their treatment by orchestra management; and there have been numerous discussions of unionizing—although those discussions went nowhere.

But then last fall, BPO Orchestra Committee Co-Chair Allison Emerick, understanding some of the unhappy feelings and issues of her colleagues, met Stephen Chong, president of the AFM local nearest to Boise, Local 689 (Eugene, OR), when they both played a summer festival. She took the opportunity to ask him a few questions. “I said, ‘This is a thing that is gaining a kind of hushed momentum among musicians because we are getting more and more agitated with the state of things’ … so I said, ‘How do we go about [unionizing]? Who do I contact?’” Emerick says.

She traded emails with Chong and then emailed numerous officials of the AFM, and “immediately” received a response from Todd Jelen, a negotiator/organizer/educator in the Symphonic Services Division (SSD). “I told him the gist of our history as an orchestra, and what we were upset about,” she says. Some of these grievances included a musician who recently resigned under “not the best circumstances,” upsetting many members. There were also promises of wage increases and travel pay that were verbally agreed upon but then rescinded by management.

Among the various concerns expressed by BPO musicians, the central issue was the lack of a mechanism to enforce their current agreement, according to violinist and organizing committee member Kate Jarvis. “What we were finding was that our master agreement really wasn’t enforceable by the musicians, and that our concerns were not necessarily met all the time,” she says.

biose philharmonic
Members of AFL-CIO showing their support and welcoming the Musicians of the Boise Philharmonic to rehearsal.
Photo: Musicians of the Boise Philharmonic

Under that agreement, a five-member orchestra committee negotiated with the management on employment issues but, in contrast to the vast majority of AFM agreements, there was no dispute resolution procedure in the contract allowing for a decision by a neutral third party. Any disputes went before the BPO Board of Directors, which had a vested interest in siding with management.

“This was something I felt, honestly, was a long time coming,” says violinist, former orchestra committee member, and organizing committee member Geoff Hill. “I’ve heard a lot of people in the orchestra tell me stories about musicians not being listened to, musicians not being taken seriously. I’ve heard about these stories for years and years and years, and I was seeing these stories before my very eyes because I was on the orchestra committee and had been through negotiations myself. … So it seems like history was just repeating itself again and again.”

After having multiple phone calls with members of the organizing committee, Jelen and Manley flew out to Boise to help them organize.

Learning to Organize

“When you are organizing a group, it’s never about AFM membership. It’s about learning individuals’ issues; it’s about training the committee members on how to be receptive to their colleagues’ issues and needs,” Jelen says. “It’s not so much about telling them what to do, but about bringing them into the thought process and training each individual to make their own choice. Really, it’s about empowering the group to act for itself.”

Jelen and Manley would go out to Boise for three to four days at a time and do intensive training with the committee members—which was unusual. “In new organizing campaigns, it’s typical to have organizers on the ground for weeks on end,” Manley says. “The fact that these musicians did what they did with our focused but limited onsite organizer support, and an AFM local of jurisdiction that is hundreds of miles away, speaks to the passion and dedication they brought in joining together to get what they need.”

Jelen and Manley spent two months training the organizing committee—and also increasing the size of the committee from five to 11 members. One of the first things the committee did was to create a list of every BPO member and rank them by who would be the most to the least receptive to organizing. As they began talking to their orchestra colleagues, they worked their way down that list, starting with those they thought would be the most interested.

boise philharmonic
Orchestra Committee Co-Chairs Allison Emerick and Adam Snider on March 29 after they signed the Merger Agreement with Local 689 AFM.
Photo: Musicians of the Boise Philharmonic

“We did a lot of research and development and education and training before we actually talked to people,” Emerick says. “We had really thorough training: general education training, organizing conversation training, how to talk to members individually, what to say, the step-by-step process of asking questions to hear their experiences, that kind of thing.”

“I probably had 20-odd conversations with members of the orchestra and, in my experience, it was extremely positive,” Hill says. “For the overwhelming majority of people, it was empowering.”

Jarvis agrees. “I think most members were open to the idea at the beginning, but there’s definitely some education about it,” she says. “Just getting people to understand what it means and how it might affect them—I think they realized that, yeah, we have some issues, and right now we’re not in a position that we can really effectively do much about those issues and this could be a way for us to move forward with a more meaningful voice in an organization.”

“It was at that point when I realized how organized of an effort this was,” says organizing committee member and associate principal violist Lindsay Bohl. “This is the most organized thing I have ever been a part of; I was really impressed with that right away, just to see that process unfolding.” Those first few meetings—day-long, intensive sessions—included learning the history of labor unions and of the AFM, how to listen to their colleagues’ issues and concerns, how to talk to their colleagues about solving issues, and explaining how the AFM can help the orchestra.

Part of the organizing campaign was to have interested members sign a “showing of interest” card, which states they want to be represented by the AFM local. The committee needed 30% of their colleagues to sign the cards in order for the National Labor Relations Board to conduct a vote on whether to join the union. By the end, the BPO Organizing Committee had gotten 90% of members to sign the cards. “It was an insanely high number,” Jelen says.

“It was extremely validating, but honestly that’s not what it is about,” Hill says. “It’s about knowing that we have the energy and the mindset to do this. It just further drives home the fact that this was something that needed to happen, and that we could have such a high margin of people voting and turning in those cards just really showed, I think, how well it resonated with people around here.”

The vote to merge the BPO Orchestra Committee into Local 689 was even more resounding—with 96% of participating musicians in the BPO voting in favor of joining the AFM.

Moving Forward

The BPO Organizing Committee announced the positive union vote on March 28. The next day, the board and management issued a statement in which they said they were “saddened that the musicians feel alienated and are moving in a new direction without first informing them.” However, negotiations did start immediately—within the board and between the board and the organizing committee. For nearly two weeks, BPO management asked questions of and had discussions with the organizing committee members. On April 15, executives announced that they would recognize their musicians as part of the AFM.

Public reaction to the announcement was largely positive, and the BPO musicians received vast amounts of support during the negotiations, Emerick says. “I think our audience was generally very supportive, and we really heard that in the [March 30] speech, where Carmen announced it to the audience and there is that applause that we weren’t expecting,” she says. “Of course, there were people—and still are people—who are not viewing this very kindly, but we really wanted to deliver the message that everybody involved in this, especially musicians, want to see this orchestra succeed. We love this orchestra, which is our livelihood and as well as our passion, so we don’t want to undermine it. So every single messaging that we put out, we wanted to be clear that this came from a place of protecting the longevity of the orchestra, protecting us as musicians, and having our voices heard in this process.”

Orchestra management and orchestra committee members have been meeting to discuss the new collective bargaining agreement, Jarvis says, and the process
is ongoing.

As contract negotiations began, the Boise musicians also worked to create their own local. When they voted to join the AFM, they knew they would become a part of their nearest local geographically: Local 689 (Eugene, OR), 450 miles away. They had initially discussed forming a Boise local as they worked to organize entry into the AFM, but quickly realized it was too complicated to do both at the same time, Bohl says. The plan then became to create their own local in three to five years.

boise philharmonic
AFM President Ray Hair (left) and Secretary-Treasurer Jay Blumenthal welcome the BPO musicians to the Federation after their successful vote.

Fairly quickly, however, the Boise musicians realized they could form their own local immediately because there was so much support among the orchestra for the union. “Nobody was against joining the local in Eugene, but everyone asked if we could just do it here,” Bohl says. “We were all kind of tired [after the union vote succeeded] but we said, ‘Let’s do it.’ It was relatively easy to get the 50 petition signatures we needed.”

“Boise has a very local mentality, so everybody was very enthusiastic about it,” Emerick says. “Knowing that if you have a grievance you can just walk downtown and talk to our local, and not have to drive 450 miles to Eugene, was important.” The organizers also decided that, as the only unionized music organization in Boise, they wanted to reach out beyond the orchestra and invite local freelance musicians to join as well, which would only make their organization stronger.

On June 11, just before the 101st AFM Convention, the International Executive Board approved the charter of Local 423 (Boise, ID).

“For me, it feels exciting to have our own local here in Boise that we can take more ownership over. We can create our own bylaws and make our own decisions. I think it will be more empowering to do it that way,” Bohl says.

Lessons Learned

Organizing is, by definition, a grassroots process, says AFM SSD Director Skolnick. It will be doomed to fail if “the union” comes in from outside to impose a vision for the workplace that is inconsistent with what the musicians themselves want and need. “In Boise, as with every truly successful organizing drive, the vision originated with the musicians’ organizing committee,” she says. “The organizing committee then did the hard and time-consuming work of engaging each of their colleagues in discussion about their personal needs and hopes for the future of the Boise Philharmonic. What resulted, with the AFM’s facilitation, was a shared vision that the musicians overwhelmingly identified with and supported.”

So what should musicians looking to organize take away from this success story? “Don’t cut corners; it’s long and arduous work, but it’s worth it in the long run,” Jelen says. “Get more training than you think you need and do the work.”

And that is what the Boise musicians did. “It definitely wasn’t easy; a lot of hours were put into making this happen,” Jarvis says.

“It was a ton of work but it’s probably the most rewarding thing I’ve ever been a part of,” Bohl says. “It was really empowering, and to meet with all our colleagues one-on-one like that was really enlightening.”

Manley calls the Boise organization, “a textbook, traditionally run” organizing campaign, which means it was entirely worker-driven and worker-led. “The union really was the musicians from the start, and the powerful lesson to take away from the Boise campaign is that the union is workers; the union is not local or national AFM officials or staff, it’s all working musicians,” he says.

Boise Philharmonic Joins AFM

At the end of March, musicians of the Boise Philharmonic voted to unionize, joining the AFM as part of Local 689 (Eugene, OR).

“We’re excited to join the community of working musicians, and we think this is an exciting time in the life of our orchestra,” says Kate Jarvis, violinist and assistant concertmaster with the Boise Philharmonic. “We have a vested interest in the organization, and we think it’s important for the musicians to have a voice in the organization.” The philharmonic’s musicians met with management shortly after the vote, and they look forward to negotiating their first collective bargaining agreement.