Tag Archives: Symphonic Services Division

electronic media

Symphonic Electronic Media During the COVID-19 Crisis

by Deborah Newmark, AFM Symphonic Electronic Media Director

As we all know by now, it has become impossible for orchestras to continue to perform concerts for their beloved audiences during the COVID-19 crisis. Music provides great comfort during challenging times, so it is extremely painful to our musicians not to be able to provide some solace as we move through this crisis. While this has been and will continue to be a rapidly evolving situation, the Symphonic Services Division (SSD) of the AFM jumped in early to negotiate a side letter to the Integrated Media Agreement (IMA) with the Employer’s Electronic Media Association (EMA) to cover electronic media that could be distributed to our audiences in place of live performances.

I, together with Rochelle Skolnick, SSD Director, had phone conferences with the EMA leadership and arrived at agreement on a side letter to cover streaming of either live performance taping without an audience present or use of archival material in case it was no longer possible for musicians to gather in their concert halls. When we first reached agreement, a few orchestras were still able to come into their workplaces and present a concert to an empty hall, but as days passed that option became impossible. As a result, orchestras who are EMA members or those signed to the IMA as an Individual Employer signatory, will be looking to their archives to stream performances to their ticket buying audience, their donors, and subscribers as well as those who provide contact information that will be useful for future ticket sales. Individual musicians or small ensembles from the orchestra’s roster will also be able to post material under the volunteer promotional language of the IMA (Article VIII.D) of material (expanded in this extreme case from a limit of 15 to up to 45 minutes in length) via their employers on the institution’s website or its social media pages.

The goal of the IMA side letter is to ensure musicians will be paid during this painful time. The agreement guarantees 30 days of wages from the date of the first posting. There are orchestras that would prefer to use some of the promotional opportunities available to them under the IMA or to release material for a media payment. Those options will always be available to IMA signatories.

If you have any questions about the COVID-19 side letter or use of any of the provisions of the IMA, please do not hesitate to contact me via email at dnewmark@afm.org or via cell phone at 646-269-1823.

Protect Musician Compensation

Symphonic Services Works to Protect Musician Compensation During Coronavirus Crisis

Staff Additions

by Rochelle Skolnick, AFM Symphonic Services Division Director

As I write this, it has been just two weeks since San Francisco Mayor London Breed ordered the closure for two weeks of the War Memorial Opera House and Davies Symphony Hall. That action cut short a run of San Francisco Ballet’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which had just received its first performance to rave reviews and triggered a then-novel request to the Symphonic Services Division (SSD): could the ballet capture a performance to an empty house and make the stream available to ticket buyers who would have seen the ballet live, but for the closure of the hall?

In a flurry of conference calls and emails over the next few days, AFM Director of Symphonic Electronic Media Debbie Newmark and I worked with the orchestra committee, Local 6 (San Francisco, CA), and the employer to hammer out an agreement to cover the project. At the same time, Debbie and I began talks with the Employers’ Electronic Media Association (EMA) to craft a side letter to the Integrated Media Agreement (IMA) that would allow similar projects by all 95 signatories to the multi-employer IMA (see Debbie’s article about that side letter elsewhere in this issue) and, in parallel, by employers who are signatory to the non-EMA individual employer IMA and by Canadian symphonic employers.

In every case, our top priority has been to secure employer commitments to keep paying all musicians—subs and extras as well as regular musicians—for work that was already scheduled to occur when the coronavirus crisis began, even if services could not proceed as scheduled. In the ensuing two weeks, as conditions have changed and all services have come to a halt, we have worked to adapt these temporary agreements to encourage employer participation and protect musician income streams.

At the same time, SSD staff in the US and Canada have fielded innumerable calls and emails from local officers, orchestra committees, individual musicians and, in at least one case, a musician’s concerned mom. We have answered questions about the specific application of contractual force majeure language, helped develop arguments and creative strategies to support continued compensation for musicians, and generally provided a sympathetic ear and a strong shoulder to musicians and their advocates reeling from the shock of what appears to be the new normal. SSD and the symphonic player conference leadership have worked in close collaboration throughout.

Some employers have been more receptive to our entreaties than others. No doubt employers, like all of us, are facing difficult decisions. In that context, many employers have chosen to do the right thing by continuing to pay all musicians, recognizing that musicians—especially freelance musicians, subs and extras—are the most vulnerable to a sudden loss of income. These are the true leaders of the moment. Others have steadfastly refused, hiding behind contract language to prioritize institutional infrastructure over the beating heart of the orchestra.

Where employers have faltered, musicians themselves have stepped up to ensure the well-being of their more vulnerable colleagues, as did the regular Chicago Lyric Opera Orchestra musicians who agreed to a 10% reduction in their own pay for Lyric’s canceled Ring cycle so subs and extras would receive most of the compensation they had been promised for the work.

The nature of the current crisis presents particular challenges to AFM members, as both musicians and unionists. Musicians’ livelihoods and spiritual well-being depend on being in physical space together with one another and an audience, now impossible due to social distancing and shelter in place orders. These essential protocols also disrupt the concerted, collective action at the heart of the union movement which depends on our ability to look each other in the eye and share our struggles and victories.

But the current protocols also require and allow us to acknowledge our deep interconnectedness and the irrevocable impact of individual actions on the well-being of society as a whole. We, as musicians and unionists, know from personal and shared experience the power of acting together. The poignancy of the current moment is that our most powerful collective action consists in isolating ourselves from one another.

These are dark days for musicians. What keeps me going right now is anticipating the euphoria of those first concerts you all will play, post-crisis, when it is again safe to gather by the hundreds and thousands and audiences once again fill concert halls. Musicians will once again take the stage or fill the pit in concert black. The audience will hush, the oboe will sound the A and the orchestra will tune. A conductor will enter and the audience will applaud, thrilled to be participating again in the rituals of live music making. And then the musicians will play, on stages and in orchestra pits, in concert halls and theaters across the US and Canada, around the world. Musicians will breathe together and move together and feel the audience move and breathe with them. And those of us lucky enough to be in the audience will be absorbed into the music, full of gratitude that this still exists, as it surely will.


“Gig”— An 800-Year-Old Word Musicians Have Used for Almost 100 years

by Christopher Durham, Chief Field Negotiator, AFM Symphonic Services Division

by Christopher Durham, AFM Symphonic Services Division Chief Field Negotiator

The word “gig” has been attached to a new economy whose workers drive for Uber and Lyft, who work from home as call center operators or medical transcribers, and who do errands and chores and provide professional services for people who prefer not to do those tasks themselves. Most of these workers are classified as independent contractors, not employees. Independent contractors are not permitted to organize a labor union or receive no employer-paid benefits such as unemployment, workers compensation, pension, or health care. In addition, they must pay both employer and employee FICA (Social Security and Medicare) contributions (the 7.65% of wages normally paid by the employer in addition to the same amount which is deducted from an employee’s pay, totaling 15.3%).

Freelance symphonic musicians share common ground with “gig economy” workers, from the multiple sources of their income to the variety of work they perform. But that is where the commonality ends. Symphonic freelance musicians have developed their classification as employees for both labor and tax purposes to a far greater extent than the new “gig economy” workers. These advances must not be taken for granted, nor should we allow our employers to draw any comparisons to the “gig economy” to weaken our classification and benefits.

Since the passage of the Wagner Act (National Labor Relations Act) in 1935, both full-time and part-time musicians enjoy the right to organize, form unions, and negotiate collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) covering wages, benefits, and other terms and conditions of employment. As employees, symphonic musicians also receive federally mandated Social Security benefits.

More than two-thirds of our player conference orchestras do not provide full-time employment to their complete roster of musicians. Until 1984, per-service (part time) symphonic musicians (this also included substitute and extra musicians) were treated as independent contractors and not employees. The Social Security Amendment Act of 1983 provided that part-time workers in nonprofit organizations must be treated as employees for tax purposes. Until the passage of this law, weekly salaried musicians were treated as full-time employees and received lawfully required benefits administered by the employer, but per-service musicians were treated as independent contractors and left responsible to pay taxes out of their own pocket. Freelance symphonic musicians reap many benefits attainable only with employee status, including workers’ compensation, unemployment, health insurance, AFM-EPF pension, and Social Security contributions, with multiple employers making contributions on behalf of each individual musician.

Notwithstanding this, there are still symphonic employers who persist in treating musicians as independent contractors. It is to the employers’ advantage to do so because it saves them money and shields them from any responsibility to their workers other than paying a set rate for services rendered. Many employers strive to reduce their labor force and rid themselves of “employees” in favor of independent contractors. One example of this is certain newspaper writers who were once employees but whose jobs were eliminated and their work converted to freelance. They were reclassified as independent contractors and lost bargained benefits.

Gigging for many freelance per-service musicians has evolved from the days of regularly performing and working in their local communities to “driving for dollars” to a now-developing “flying for dollars” model. We work for multiple orchestras to cobble together an annual wage. When local work slows, we seek work outside of our own communities. We may live hundreds of miles from where we gig, which substantially alters our relationships with, and support for, our colleagues and our local unions.

In this context, solidarity becomes challenging. It is more critical than ever to work collectively with our colleagues to maintain the CBA of every orchestra with which we perform, and to organize in support of improved wages and terms and conditions of employment. Even if we only perform a couple of times per year with an orchestra 500 miles away, what happens at that orchestra’s bargaining table sets a precedent with other orchestras and will likely come back to haunt us in our home orchestra if there is a bad result. The best way to support your colleagues and improve wages and benefits is to join the local union wherever you work and band together with your colleagues (usually volunteers) who administer and enforce the CBA.

Symphonic musicians who are not treated as employees should discuss with the Symphonic Services Division how to remedy that. We must preserve our status as employees to maintain all the benefits we receive. However our gigs may evolve, we must recognize that federal laws governing employee rights—especially labor laws—must not be weakened, and we must do whatever we can to assure these benefits for ourselves and future colleagues.

When Organizing, There Is a Tool You Can Rely On: The Wage Charts Website

by Laurence Hofmann, AFM Symphonic Services Division Contract Administrator, Data and Communications Coordinator

No matter where your orchestra stands with regard to wages and working conditions, you still have aspirations. If you work under a collective bargaining agreement (CBA), contract negotiations offer the possibility to make some of those aspirations a reality. If you work in an orchestra that is not yet organized, sharing your aspirations with your colleagues can form the basis for organizing in support of a first CBA.

We often hear from employers that our contract proposals are not “reasonable.” Using objective standards and data to support aspirational proposals helps ensure they will be based on common practice and industry standards, and that their reasonableness can be supported in negotiations. Objective standards and data can also support organizing—either in an existing bargaining unit or in a brand new one.

The best factual source for that information is the wage charts, which are a collection of data about each orchestra’s CBA (including wages, benefits, working conditions, committees, electronic media, etc.). Symphony orchestras whose musicians work under an AFM CBA are grouped for purposes of the wage charts by player conference: International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM), Regional Orchestra Players Association (ROPA), and Organization of Canadian Symphony Musicians (OCSM). The CBAs and wage charts for these orchestras are hosted in the SSD Resource Center on the afm.org website. CBAs for orchestras unaffiliated with any player conference can also be found there.

Since 2016, the wage charts have been collected online to not only be edited in PDF, but also to build a seasonal dynamic and interactive database capable of creating ad hoc reports with the use of specific criteria: https://wagechart.afm.org/login.

Using data from the wage charts, you can ensure your aspirational vision is not a mirage and that there are other institutions where your aspirations are reality.

As a member of an orchestra, you are part of a collective. By finding common ground with your fellow musicians in the orchestra—organizing—you can establish a shared set of goals. While the work of organizing involves communication with every musician and the synchronization of desires and means to realize those desires, a part of that effort is based on an objective element: information about aspirational models.


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.

richard sandals

How the Newfoundland Symphony Achieved Its First Collective Agreement

richard sandals

by Richard Sandals, AFM Symphonic Services, Canada, Associate Director

Pour voir cet article en français, cliquez ici.

The Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra (NSO) is the only orchestra in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, and the easternmost orchestra in North America. Since 1985, the relationship between management and musicians has been governed by a players’ agreement that often left the players unsure about processes and what their rights were.

In 2016, Greg Bruce, who at the time was president of Local 820 St, John’s, NL), presented the NSO Players’ Council with an idea. “When Greg talked about the process of creating a collective agreement, it just made sense,” says Carole Bestvater, chair of the NSO negotiating committee. “It was becoming clear that having an agreement in place would be important, especially to get some security in the lives of the freelancers. There were always questions about the audition process and tenure.”

After the musicians voted in favour of pursuing a collective agreement, the process of drafting a proposal began. Bestvater was joined on the negotiating committee by Kathy Conway-Ward, Jill Dawe, Nicole Hand, Kate Read, Theo Weber, and Chris Williams, with the assistance of Rozalind MacPhail, executive director of Local 820. “The committee spent the whole 2017-2018 season reading and studying about a dozen agreements from other orchestras across the country, and we inspected our own players’ agreement with a fine-tooth comb,” Bestvater explained during the presentation of the tentative agreement to the musicians. “We discussed things that were working, and things that weren’t. We found gaps in our own players’ agreement that needed addressing and researched national standards of doing things that we felt were important for our organization to adopt. We preserved many things that were working well, and fine-tuned other items that needed more detail.”

With assistance from SSD Canada, over a period of several months, the musicians refined the document they had created and prepared to present it to management. Formal negotiations began in February and proceeded fairly quickly. To their credit, NSO management, led by CEO Hugh Donnan, saw the value in working with the musicians and the AFM to develop an agreement that would set clear expectations for everyone, and help the NSO grow into an even more important musical voice. Both sides also appreciated the need for an agreement that recognizes the unique history and composition of the NSO, and the challenges that come from being situated on an island in the North Atlantic.

On May 14, the musicians reached a tentative agreement with management, and set about finalizing the document, which was presented to the membership on June 4. On June 15, the members of the NSO ratified their first collective agreement.

In addition to the protections that come from working under an AFM-negotiated collective agreement, the committee was able to win improvements in virtually every area. Wages will increase by more than 16% over the three-year term, premiums for principal players are mandated for the first time, and pension contributions of 5% will begin in the first year. Musicians will now be entitled to paid sick leave and paid compassionate leave, and most musicians will have a minimum service guarantee. The existing audition procedures were improved and formalized, and the musicians will receive the full protection of tenure with a peer-reviewed dismissal process.

Throughout the process, the negotiating committee was focused on achieving an agreement that would benefit the whole orchestra. “We didn’t want anyone to feel pushed out by this agreement,” Bestvater says. “It was about getting the best conditions for everybody. That collective spirit has always been there, but it was definitely focused as we got closer to ratification. That reflects on the orchestra as a whole—we really just want the opportunity to play music together.”

Highlights of the New Integrated Media Agreement

by Deborah Newmark, AFM Symphonic Services Division Symphonic Electronic Media Director

On April 15, after 18 months of extremely difficult bargaining, the AFM and the Symphony, Opera and Ballet Employers’ Electronic Media Association (EMA) reached agreement on a successor Integrated Media Agreement (IMA). The term of the new agreement is June 14, 2019 through June 30, 2022.

The AFM national media committee for these negotiations, led by AFM International President Ray Hair, maintained a steadfast commitment to achieving a fair and balanced agreement. The committee included International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) and Regional Orchestra Players Association (ROPA) media committees as well as a number of local officers, AFM staff, and esteemed counsel, Patricia Polach and Rochelle Skolnick. The EMA represents 94 US orchestras and it is the musicians in these orchestras that ratified the new agreement.

To be a signatory to the IMA, an orchestra must have a collective bargaining agreement with their local, a permanent roster, and an orchestra committee. The AFM soon will begin offering the new IMA to eligible symphony, opera, and ballet institutions that prefer to sign the agreement with the AFM on an individual employer basis.

Highlights of the New Agreement

The committee felt strongly that wages for audio streaming had to be increased, as this medium has become the primary vehicle for distribution of symphony, opera, and ballet product. Toward that goal, and in a thorough analysis of the state of other methods of distribution that have decreased in popularity, we conceived of and reached agreement on a Multi-Platform Rate (new Article X). This concept succeeds in achieving the much-needed increase in streaming rates while bundling other mediums of release into a single rate of 6% of weekly scale.

The employer must continue to maintain ownership and control of product but can enter into licensing agreements for distribution. Under this provision, the orchestra committee must participate in an artistic and financial consultative process with the employer, after having received detailed documentation including any licensing arrangements. The orchestra committee is also responsible for approving projects on a case-by-case basis.

There is a new provision called the Annual Media Commitment Payment that replaces the Audio Buffet. It requires the employer to commit to an annual media payment at one of three different payment levels for an additional 3%, 4%, or 5% of base annual salary with accompanying minimum payment requirements for each level. In exchange for making a commitment to an annual media payment, the employer receives specific discounts on IMA rates.

Payment floors that represent minimum requirements for all wages that are based on a percentage of local scale have increased 1% at ratification and then 2% each year of the three-year agreement. Per-minute television rates have increased 2%. Pension contributions increased to 13.2%, consistent with the August 1, 2018 Pension Rehabilitation Plan of the AFM-EPF.

One area in the prior agreement that generated the highest number of disputes and grievances was the promotional provisions, especially when the employer provided content to third parties. This was particularly problematic in the realm of broadcasts and streams of performances of the “Star-Spangled Banner” at sporting events that the EMA believed did not require media compensation. While we have always worked to find a balance between fair compensation for musicians while creating meaningful opportunities for the institution to promote itself, we were not going to agree to promotional provisions that would eliminate the need for the employer to engage in future paid-for media product.

The balance achieved provides payment for broadcasts and streams of live performances of the national anthem at “premium games.” It also ensures that any promotional activity provides recognition to the orchestra and its musicians. Promotional clips cannot be used as underscoring or backing tracks or as a jingle that would otherwise be covered under the AFM’s Commercial Announcements Agreement. Expanded third-party use cannot occur in the absence of orchestra committee approval. In addition, any third party that qualifies to use a promotional clip must sign an agreement with the employer ensuring payment in the event of a misuse. The employer has 30 days to cure an infringement for material they provide to a third party before becoming liable and must then enter into and fulfill all conditions required by the appropriate AFM Agreement.

Another new provision allows for capture by audience members at outdoor concerts and the ability for the audience to share material on social media in limited circumstances. There is also a provision to allow capture by audience members at up to two formal indoor concert programs and up to four informal indoor events per season. The employer must come to the orchestra committee in advance for approval.

Orchestra committee approval must also be sought when responding to requests from conductors, composers, soloists, and musicians of the orchestra for a private use recording. A private use tape agreement must be signed by the individual making the request in order to receive the recording. In addition, for personal study purposes only, the music director and the musicians of the orchestra can obtain access to a stream of materials via a password-protected portal.

In the realm of revenue participation, where we had encountered numerous problems in the past, the committee sought and achieved a much-needed change to the system. Instead of a 60% net revenue distribution after direct costs are recouped, there is now a new system that will share 55% of gross revenue after deducting solely musicians’ costs—nothing else. This should make it easier to see revenue distributions from the exploitation of our product.

In Conclusion

These were challenging negotiations where the union was represented by a strong and educated committee who went up against employers determined to erode hard-fought standards in the symphonic industry. Not only was there success in addressing the pressing need to increase payments for streaming, the new agreement also ensures that symphonic musicians continue to receive fair compensation for all of their media work while also expanding the platform for institutions to continue to promote themselves to ensure a healthy future for the symphony, opera, and ballet community.

Using wagechart.afm.org to Understand the Symphonic World

by Laurence Hofmann, AFM Symphonic Services Division Contract Administrator/Communications and Data Coordinator

A unique digital tool and a dynamic  and interactive database

The website dedicated to the symphonic charts is wagechart.afm.org. All AFM members with a registered account have access to this invaluable tool that ultimately eases the understanding of the symphonic world.

Wagechart is an online platform where most current, as well as historic, data about wages and working conditions for symphony orchestras affiliated to the players conferences are collected and made available for ad hoc industry analysis. This is possible thanks to the extraordinary Comparative Analysis tool. Symphonic negotiation committees can use this tool to gather necessary basic information and generate tables and graphs in preparation for upcoming negotiations.


Back to Basics

It’s Back to Basics to Maintain Our Rights as Workers

Todd Jelen, Negotiator, Organizer & Educator, AFM Symphonic Services Divisionby Todd Jelen, AFM Symphonic Services Division Negotiator/Organizer/Educator

During a recent AFM local officer training session, in the question session at the end of my presentation on “right to work” laws, a new officer raised her hand and stated: “It looks like we have to get back to basics.” Not coincidentally, this is also the current strategy that many unions, including the AFM, have adopted.

Over the past 50 years, laws that were fought for and won by workers using their voices in the public forum have been quietly eroded behind closed doors in our courtrooms and legislatures. If we become complacent, we risk losing the rights that we think are commonplace in our 21st Century workplaces. These rights were fought for and won by average workers in previous generations who did something about the injustice and inequality that surrounded them. We must get back to the basics of unionism, if workers are to survive and thrive in our uncertain future.

People working in a union has proven to be the number one check against inequality. The greatest victories in history were earned when people joined together for a common purpose. During the early 20th century, when work was often performed in dangerous and unregulated conditions and many jobs paid substandard wages, employers routinely exploited workers by finding loopholes in the law or breaking laws outright in order to maximize profits.

This was all overseen by a minority of wealthy individuals who wielded almost complete power to keep a system of inequity in place for their personal benefit. You would be correct in thinking that what I described sounds a lot like today, because our current level of inequality is about the same as it was 100 years ago. We must get back to basics, if we are to survive as workers.

There have been many challenges to our right to organize over the past 40 years. By the time this article is published, the Supreme Court may have decided the Janus vs. AFSCME case. If they rule against AFSCME (which looked certain when writing this article), then you are reading this in a world where every public sector job is right to work, regardless of the state. This decision and the overt attack on workers is a culmination of 100 years of effort by corporate America, through their think tanks, lobbyists, and legal teams, to destroy the rights earned by working people acting in union.   

The first part of this effort is right to work legislation. After right to work’s recent expansion to 28 states, the percentage of organized workplaces in the US private sector has dwindled to 6% in 2018. Janus focuses on public sector workplaces, which currently have a much higher density of 35%. We can only fight against power like this if all workers get back to basics.

When we get back to basics and work together, we can realize our incredible power as workers. When members are the driving influence in everything that we do, everyone develops ownership in the process. History has shown that we can use this power to both maintain and further our interests in our workplaces and communities. Many of our orchestras are currently using this model to organize and build power internally, even in off contract years. You too can begin to change your world, but only if you are active in doing so. There is no better time to start than now! 

Preparation for Bargaining

Preparation for Bargaining Is Continuous

by Christopher Durham, Chief Field Negotiator, AFM Symphonic Services Divisionby Christopher Durham, AFM Symphonic Services Division Chief Field Negotiator

Preparation for negotiating your collective bargaining agreement no longer begins six months in advance of your agreement’s expiration, nor does it end with tentative agreement on its successor. Much of this preparation occurs throughout the term of the agreement. Using the time between rounds of active bargaining to choose effective representatives, build important relationships, gather information, and exploit resources is now an essential part of preparation for bargaining.

Electing an effective orchestra and/or negotiating committee is an important function of the bargaining unit. When nominating and voting on committee members, it is important to be informed about the candidates and choose appropriately. The committee should include institutional memory and reflect a cross section of the orchestra with regard to factions and seniority. It is increasingly important that we elect people who have the desire, time, willingness, and ability to participate. We must avoid electing one-agenda candidates.

If there are members who have a special interest, but not the time or desire to become a member of the committee, they may be willing and can be assigned to do special projects or subcommittee work. Such work could include administering strike fund payments, maintaining social media tools, researching specific topics for the committee, coordinating social activities, and attending labor functions. Musicians willing to help  in these ways are huge assets to a busy committee.

There are many important relationships that must be maintained, not only when we are in crisis and need assistance. Clearly, a good relationship with management and members of the board is better than a bad relationship. We must be active in making sure this is the case. Communication with our own orchestra members is critical. An e-newsletter and periodic social functions bring everyone together outside the workplace. Regular communication and involvement with our local union officers are also vital. We must attend meetings of the union membership and executive board and make reports.

Musicians can form a coalition with other unions in our workplaces. These may include stagehands, carpenters, electricians, “front of house” workers, and scenic designers. Relationships with other trade unions can occur in a variety of ways, including attending local and state AFL-CIO meetings and sharing our workplace issues. This puts a face on our union and shows their delegates that we have concern for other workers and are not turning to them only when we need their support.

Social media gives orchestra bargaining units many tools to deliver our message and educate our followers about who we are and what we do. Orchestra musicians should consider using Facebook, Twitter, a website, e-newsletters, or other means to advance their cause and build these important relationships. Having people dedicated to setting up and maintaining these tools will assure that the content is fresh and effective.

As we administer the current agreement we may agree to variances and encounter grievances. Such events should be memorialized in detail so that we have a record to review as we formulate our next proposal. Information we collect during the term of the agreement will help guide us as we bargain the next agreement.

Many agreements permit musician participation on board subcommittees. A key committee is the finance committee. Musician representatives to employer boards and committees should make regular reports and provide information gathered during these meetings to the local officers and orchestra/negotiating committee members. At times we may encounter management’s claim that the financial information discussed or provided is confidential. This should not mean that we, as bargaining unit representatives, are prohibited from sharing with our leadership. This information is relevant to bargaining. Bargaining committees should never first discover the organization’s poor financial health at the bargaining table, especially if the musicians have a representative on the board’s finance committee.

Many orchestras participate in the AFM Strike Fund or have “war chests.” We must set an alert to pay the strike fund properly and on time, with required information. War chests are usually authorized payroll deductions that have been voted upon and approved by bargaining unit members at a meeting. The motion to establish a war chest must stipulate how the money is to be recorded and utilized. These funds are best held in an account of the local, which will take responsibility for required Department of Labor and Internal Revenue Service reporting.

The SSD is prepared and always willing to discuss further ideas and needs you have as you negotiate, administer, and enforce your agreement.