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A Month in the Life of a Union Officer

As musicians, we all live in a world that has us running constantly. If you work in the symphonic world in an orchestra, just that “one” job can be incredibly busy, but it is still often not your only gig: You teach, and you still probably have gigs outside of the orchestra. If you’re a freelancer, in whatever style of music or part of the industry you’re in, well, the word says it all—you’re running from gig to gig, maybe all on top of a “day” gig as well.

In the 25 years that I performed full time, it was clear that few outside our realm have any idea how hard we work, all to be on stage for those few hours, performing at a level that we are proud of and that our audiences go away appreciating. It’s some of the hardest, but most fulfilling work I’ve ever done.

That said, now that I’m a union officer at both the local and international levels, the work can be just as exhausting and daunting, but fulfilling as well. I’m often asked what it is I do, by both members and non-members, and while I could go down the rabbit hole on any single activity listed here, I’m going to try and give a “snapshot” of the activities, for both the local and Federation, that I’ve been involved in over the last month.


• A meeting between myself, accompanied by a rank and file musician, with one of our US congressman and staff, to request support for our TV/Film negotiations. The congressman followed up with a letter to the companies, urging support for a fair contract for the musicians. A win!

• Two trips to Los Angeles for separate rounds of bargaining with the networks and film companies. We’re getting their attention, but we have a long way still to go.

• As chair of the education committee, I attended a three-day AFM officer training in Silver Springs, Maryland. Another great group of local officers left the training with organizing campaigns in hand. A win!

• Conference call with DC staff of Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) to discuss his concerns with the CASE Act, legislation that the Federation has endorsed, with a follow up appearance at a Wyden town hall event, speaking directly with the senator and staff on this issue, as well as the Butch Lewis Act.

• Worked with the IT department at the Federation to finalize work on our new Officer List Serve that should be live by the time you read this.

Local 99:

• Mediation based on a grievance filed with one of our employer CBAs. Mediation failed, leading to threats of an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) and/or going to arbitration. After rounds of negotiations, we ended up with a settlement that got all musicians paid per the terms of the contract. A win!

• Committee meeting focused on round two of our musician loading zone initiative. The trial period has been a total success, so we will be expanding the number of locations available for musicians. A win!

• The Library Project, which I wrote about a year or so ago, that, unfortunately, provided free permanent downloads of music for library card holders, announced their round two for submissions in which the free download component has been removed. A win!

• Portland Opera Orchestra committee meeting and full orchestra meeting to discuss the significant changes to the leadership of the employer organization and how we can play a role in building a more positive management/union relationship.

• Two Local 99 Executive Board meetings and budget approval for 2020.

• New member orientation.

• Two days of auditions at the Oregon Symphony.

• Representation meeting for a musician in the Oregon Symphony.

• Jobs with Justice annual dinner and the monthly steering committee meeting.

• Meeting with local industry advocacy group, focused on our relationship with city hall and the creation of a new Policy Council, which will have a direct line to city hall on musician issues. Local 99 is a key participant on the council. 

• Four MPTF project requests processed.

• AFL-CIO political coordinators meeting.

• Dealt with Oregon Ballet Theatre management issues, as well as personnel issues.

• Got up on the local’s roof and cleaned out the gutters before the Oregon rains are unleashed.

• And lastly, on this non-comprehensive list, got out to listen to great music in our community performed by Local 99 members.

All this in between the daily routine of answering the onslaught of phone calls and emails, member and non-member drop-ins, planning for future negotiations and organizing plans, etc.

This is not the workload of every local officer, given the Federation duties I have, but there is never a shortage of work to be done by any officer. While some of these duties are just handled directly by the officer, many of them require member participation to be successful.

As a member, you must remember that you are the union, and when your local leader is working on a project that needs your support, please step up and lend that hand, because when we all work together, we can achieve so much. Trust me, I see it every day!

Finding Renewed Purpose Following a Summer of Change

The last six months have been a very busy time for me. In addition to the work of running a mid-sized local and my duties as AFM International Vice President, the AFM initiated its new Officer Training program that I worked with others to create. Training has taken place in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania; Madison, Wisconsin; Orlando, Florida; Chicago, Illinois; and Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. In addition to those training sessions, I also attended the Regional Orchestra Players Association (ROPA) and International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) conferences. Through all of this work, there developed a theme that I felt was worth sharing. This has been an important time for revitalization and regeneration at multiple levels of the AFM. Let me explain.

Starting with the Officer Training program, it has been years since the AFM had such a program in place. The work that local officers do is complicated, time intensive, and never ending. Combined with the fact that there are not many “kudos” and pay is not what it should be, you have a recipe for burnout. That said, those who take on these local leadership positions, do so for the good of all. It’s truly a calling for the best of those officers and their commitment cannot be underappreciated.

As we’ve gone through each of our training sessions, the feedback has been almost universally positive. It’s not just what officers learn from staff and trainers, but what they learn from each other, as well. As they grow their relationships, they have new allies to contact when there are problems to discuss or for cross collaboration between locals. For those officers who have been in place for a while, there is a sense of regeneration and rededication to their duties. For those who are new to their positions, they now know where to turn for answers and support. It’s exciting to feel the energy and see the interaction and relationships that build during these two or three-day sessions.

Moving to ROPA and ICSOM, both of those conferences have new leadership at the top and this was their first round of conferences. You could sense a slightly different dynamic and energy in each of those conferences. It’s not that the previous leadership wasn’t great, it’s just that, as someone new steps into that role, they bring fresh ideas and enthusiasm that refocuses the direction and creates a revitalized organization, ready and energized to face challenges head on.

Lastly, Local 99 (Portland, OR), my local, has gone through a transition. Dennis Lynch, secretary-treasurer of Local 99 and a pillar of the AFM, has retired. He joined the AFM in the mid ’70s, and first became the secretary-treasurer of Local 689 (Eugene, OR) in November 1978. Then, the AFM hired him as the AFM Western Region International Representative (according to Dennis, on April Fool’s Day 1984). He served in that position for 20 years, until 2004. In 2008 he became secretary-treasurer of Local 99. We thank Dennis for the incredible contributions and his years of service to the AFM and wish him the best in this new phase of his life.

Filling those large shoes at Local 99 is newly elected Secretary-Treasurer Mont Chris Hubbard. To continue the theme, you can feel the resurgence of energy at the local. He is doing all the things that a new leader must do. While he is learning the ropes, understanding the work and the depth of what must get done, he is also challenging the status quo. He is making us look at the way we work with a new set of eyes and experiences. We will all learn from the transition taking place. I believe we will end up with a stronger, revitalized, and more efficient and effective local.

What this summer of change brought into clear relief for me is the importance and value of a fresh set of eyes, or a new backdrop for the work we do. I’m not just talking about local officers and the AFM. I’m talking about all of us. Maybe it’s time to take a hard look at your career and where you’re at. Are you in a rut? Does it seem like new ideas for moving forward have stalled? Do you have writer’s block? We all need to change our perspective, whether it be through classes or training, a change in routines, time away from work (vacation), or even looking at some of our multiple work commitments and deciding whether they are moving us forward or holding us back. The process of “challenging” our status quo can lead to renewed energy, commitment, and a revitalized focus on our work.

Maybe it’s easiest to think of this as a reboot. It just might be time to take a good look at ourselves, our bands, the work we do, and make this our season of change.

Bruce Fife headshot

You Can Be Heard—NOW!

Every six months, or so, I am tasked with writing an article for the International Musician. More often than not, the impetus for the topic relates to something that I’m dealing with as president of Local 99 (Portland, OR). As I’ve stated before, it’s one of the true positive outcomes of our AFM structure, in that, as an officer of a local, I can bring the daily, real world issues directly to the international governing body, which can then lead to the change and growth required in these challenging times. 

Such is the case with this article. In recent months, Local 99 has seen a significant number of violations by employers in both our national agreements and some of our local agreements. In most of these cases, they are not circumstances that are being brought to my attention by musicians working under the agreements. They are violations that I have been able to ascertain, based on report forms, or research that uncovers new and/or false information.

Following the discovery of these contract violations, I locate and reach out to the musicians (not always so easy, as some may not be members yet), explain the circumstances, and with their help, work to rectify the situation. When successful, that usually means additional payments to the musicians in the form of wages, health care, and/or pension. In reaching out, I have been met with the full range of reactions: from “I don’t want to bother with this” to “let’s take them down,” and every level in between. In one recent case, the musician didn’t want to pursue a claim, then changed his mind, and we (the local and Federation) were able to procure almost $11,000 in wages and benefits for him.

As I ponder this situation, it naturally occurs to me that, if I’m the one catching these contract violations, covering dozens of contracts and completely different work locations, activities, and employers, this must be just a small percentage of what is really taking place. That leads me to question why the musicians working under these agreements, who often complain about not being able to make enough money, do not contact their local or the Federation about these contract violations.

There are two obvious reasons for this. The first is knowledge. If you don’t know the terms of the agreement you are working under, you don’t know how you are supposed to be treated or paid.

That is an easy fix. If it’s a national agreement, the terms are located on the AFM website for you to review. If you can’t find them on the site, contact your local and I’m sure they can help track them down. If it’s a local contract, ask for a copy, or talk with your local officer about the terms. Knowing and understanding the terms of the contract(s) you’re working under is a pretty easy way to determine if you’re being paid and treated properly.

The other reason is fear. Believe me, this is a big one and can be very difficult. You might think that, if you stand up for your right to be treated as required by the contract, which the signing company or organization has agreed to, you could be let go, not hired again, or disrespected in your music community, depending on the scope of the contract. Know that I, as a local officer, don’t want to see this happen to anyone. It is my job to deflect and take the heat away from musicians as we work through the issues. It should be noted in all these cases: the contract is between the union and the producer (employer). An individual musician does not have the authority to waive the terms of that agreement. Working together, though, we should be able to navigate the issues, protect your relationships, and get you the money you’re owed.   

Beyond the realm of these two examples, though, I’m sure there are other reasons why musicians don’t bring contract violations to the attention of their local officers. If we don’t know about something, we can’t work to resolve it. So I’m going to do something crazy here (at least it might prove to be). I would like to hear about all your reasons for not communicating with your local about contract violations, especially the wage violations that you have experienced. I encourage you to read and understand the contracts you are working under so you at least know if there are violations. You can email or snail mail me your story. Mail makes it easier to protect your anonymity, but whichever you choose, your identity will not be shared. I only ask that you identify the local you are a member of.

You can send your story to either bfife@afm99.org or to Bruce Fife, PO Box 42485, Portland, OR, 97242.

Know your value and stand up for your rights!

Disruptive Technologies — Our Time of Transformation

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

The old phrase, “may you live in interesting times” is often purported to be a blessing, when in fact, it is a curse, mistakenly attributed to be of ancient Chinese origins, though its origins are Western, 20th century. Whether it’s a blessing or a curse is of little consequence.

What is of consequence is the “times” we live in are moving forward at breakneck speed, with little consideration to the effect of disruptive technologies. I don’t know whether it’s possible to slow things down enough to consider the impact of implementation, but I believe it’s important to try.

The music biz was the canary in the coal mine. We were the first to really be impacted by the disruption caused by the technological revolution. Starting with Napster, it’s pretty much been one disruption after another. As you look at other industries, journalism was right on our tails, then retail, film, and TV, etc. All impacted to varying degrees by new technology.

Now the newest twist is the “sharing economy” of Uber, Airbnb, and Lyft. This is disruptive, because once again, the technology allows companies to play by a different set of rules.  Everyone is placed at the intersection of worker rights, consumer rights, consumer preferences, and big business. On one hand, for example, there is no obligation to have liability insurance nor to pay license fees or other types of taxes that cab companies and/or hotels are historically required to pay. In other words, they’re profiting by not playing the “game” the way years of experience have brought it together through knowledge that protects consumers and workers and with infrastructure that allows businesses to flourish.

I do get it—the convenience of tapping your phone and having a car show up quickly, or the adventure of staying in someone’s home with a view. But, if you were the cab driver who has had to follow a strict set of rules (laws or mandated regulations), which can now be ignored by Uber, or you live on a street where your neighbor rents out his home and now there are late night parties and strangers “moving in” who have little or no respect for your neighborhood, you might not think it’s such a good idea.

There is one other key consequence. The revenue generated is not going to the worker on the ground, but once again, appears to be flowing to the top. Uber has reportedly become a $50 billion company in just six years and the drivers are not getting an equitable share of that revenue. In fact, depending on which report you read, after adjusting for the overhead of their vehicles, they are making no more than current cabbies. That could change. Uber drivers have now won their first round in Federal Court in San Francisco relating to their misclassification as independent contractors. They are fighting to be classified as employees so that they are be able to receive gratuities (Uber informs customers that gratuities are included in the price) and recover maintenance costs. They are taking a stand.

The thing that bothers me most about all of this is that no one seems to be looking at the long-term consequences. Are we again, by not considering the long term, going to destroy more industries, at the cost of many more jobs for hard-working people? Are we going to destroy, as well, the infrastructure that has made this short-term growth possible, but that may not survive the disruption? I’m not against progress, but I believe we’re better served if we don’t blow up an industry, but rather, keep the best of it, while shedding the anachronistic parts of it.

The place I’m headed with this is wages. All of this disruption hits wages of workers harder than any other part of the industry. The response to these challenges seems to always be to lower our wages. That is certainly the easiest answer, but once you go down that road, it’s difficult to come back from it. Yes, it’s hard to see, and to stand up for the long game, but if we don’t, we just hand everything over to whomever is the current “man.” (Remember that little company, Google, and its slogan, “do no evil”? Now, it’s clearly “the man.”)

How did we get to the place where club owners are doing musicians a favor by letting them play in their clubs? How is it ok to give US tax credits to companies that then take the work overseas? How does it make sense that one musician is supposed to cover the clarinet, bass clarinet, flute, oboe, and English horn parts in the pit, just so they don’t have to hire more musicians? How bad does it have to be before people decide, okay, that’s enough, now it’s time to stand up and fight for what’s right.

Yes, I’m ranting, but I get tired of watching the “power” of the employer not challenged by the power of our numbers. It can’t be just your local or national officers who are ready to stand up for what’s right. You have to be part of that team. We do live in interesting times and I’d like to see us come through them better than we came into them. So far, it’s not looking so good.

We must focus our creative attention and power on those external forces around us that take advantage of our lack of engagement. We need to have the common sense to value our skills and talent, our work, and the music we create and offer. Yes, it’s scary, it’s challenging, but when we don’t stand up to power, they can take it all away from us. It’s human nature to do what they’re doing, but it should also be our nature to fight this “curse” of interesting times, and make sure we own and benefit from what we create.