The American Federation of Musicians congratulates President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris for their victory in the November 2020 general election. Our union endorsed the Biden-Harris ticket because their campaign agenda promoted the protection of American workers, and committed to strengthening worker organizing, collective bargaining, and unions.
As I’ve mentioned in this column previously, there has been an all-out war against unions and collective bargaining for decades, and which accelerated after President Reagan broke the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Union (PATCO) in 1981. More recently, state governments have binge-legislated anti-worker laws, including so-called “right-to-work” laws to favor union-busting agendas to sabotage labor unions, organizing, and collective bargaining.
The Biden campaign labor platform, if implemented as promised, may result in the most pro-labor atmosphere of any administration since the presidencies of FDR and Harry Truman. President Truman, as students of history may recall, vetoed the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which sought to restrict and weaken the power of unions (as it certainly did), but his veto was overridden by Congress. In the years since, the expansion of union-busting corporate power over working people has multiplied exponentially.
Over the last four years, an anti-labor biased National Labor Relations Board has produced a parade of rulings that look to hurt unions and to reverse the progress made during the Obama years. Joe Biden proposes to check the abuse of corporate power over labor by holding corporate executives personally accountable for interfering in organizing efforts and for labor law violations. He also proposes to restrict federal dollars to employers who engage in union-busting activities and would penalize companies that bargain in bad faith.
And on an issue that particularly and directly impacts the business of freelance professional musicians who struggle to survive in the gig economy—pandemic notwithstanding—Joe Biden supports extending the right to organize and bargain collectively to independent contractors. This is a point of paramount importance for our union because the employment status of musicians performing short-term engagements for multiple employers is routinely and unfairly determined by labor boards to be that of an independent contractor.
Independent contractors do not have recourse under the National Labor Relations Act when unfair labor practices are committed against them by purchasers of their services. In many cases, because of their pattern of employer conduct and strict control over the services of musicians, the purchasers and also the booking agents are de facto employers and should be held subject to labor law jurisdiction.
A good portion of the Biden labor platform can be accomplished through executive orders and a re-alignment of National Labor Relations Board appointees. Some platform pieces will need Congressional approval and are likely to meet resistance if the Republicans maintain control over the Senate. By the time you read this column, we may know the outcome of US senate runoff races in the state of Georgia, which could impact whether the full extent of Biden’s pro-union agenda, as well as other critically important items, may be implemented.
Two top Federation legislative priorities in the new Congress concern the urgent need for relief for critically underfunded multi-employer pension plans, and long overdue amendments to copyright law to provide for a terrestrial performance right. These two items were under Congressional consideration in the form of the Butch Lewis Act—which would guarantee low interest loans to troubled pension funds, including the AFM pension fund, eliminating benefit reductions for participants—and the AM-FM Act, which would require US radio stations to pay musicians, singers, and copyright owners for the music they use.
The Butch Lewis Act is part of the relief recipe for struggling multi-employer plans now embedded in pending COVID-19 supplemental relief legislation, in the form of Emergency Pension Plan Relief Act of 2020. While we do not expect any year-end congressional relief package to include pension relief provisions, we do expect early 2021 COVID relief legislation to include a rescue package for multi-employer pension plans.
Republicans have indicated they will push for a smaller-scale compromise plan that would be paired with benefit reductions. The Federation will fiercely resist such an inadequate solution and instead lobby hard for a broader stimulus package that would include pension relief provisions designed to shore-up multi-employer plans, restore benefit reductions already implemented, and preclude the possibility of prospective benefit reductions.
The new Congress will also see the introduction of successor legislation that would establish a performance right in terrestrial over-the-air radio broadcasts, requiring radio stations to pay musicians and singers, as well as major and indie labels, for the use of recordings. Gone are the days when radio play promoted the sale of physical products such as vinyl records, tapes, and compact discs, that drove artist royalties and label income. With streaming services such as web radio, satellite radio, and interactive services such as Spotify and Apple Music acquiring a greater percentage of consumption and growing bigger piles of money, especially during the pandemic, labels and performers are pushing to get paid on terrestrial radio play.
Because Joe Biden has promised to be “the most pro-union president you’ve ever seen,” I am optimistic that the Federation’s legislative goals, those of our arts and entertainment union partners and all of labor, are far more achievable today. But if Republicans continue to control the Senate, there will be serious challenges. That’s why Georgia’s twin runoff elections on January 5, 2021, which will decide the political tone of the Senate, are so important.
The American Federation of Musicians will work with the Joe Biden administration to promote, encourage, and incentivize unionization, to adopt legislation to protect our pension fund, to further beneficial copyright and performance rights legislation, and to promote initiatives that will improve the lives of musicians everywhere.