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Home » Officer Columns » The AFM and Civil Rights

The AFM and Civil Rights

  -  AFM IEB Member and President, Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA)

by John Acosta, International Executive Board and Member Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA) and Local 1000 (Nongeographic)

“We were investigated three times by Congress. Some senators would say to me, ‘You are bragging about a great democratic union. Why do you have two locals in many cities, and especially here in Washington, DC?’ The AFM had by far more segregated locals than any international or national union. So, you can see, the spotlight was on us. Merged locals must live together. All must work at it very hard, so as time goes on no one will say, ‘Do you want to employ a Black or a white man?’ It will be, ‘How many men do you want to contract for?’” said James Petrillo, in a speech to the 1971 AFM Convention. †

Our great union, like our great nation, has a long and storied past. Within some chapters of our history, there remain wounds that are yet to heal. When the first Black local was chartered in Chicago in 1902, it began a journey of two musicians unions segregated by race. Many of the first Black unions in the AFM were founded in the South, although many large cities in the North also established segregated locals.

Under segregation, Black locals organized separately and were forced to take lower wages in order to access employment. Despite the separate but equal two-union system, many Black locals thrived. How could they not? Those within their ranks were founders and innovators of great musical traditions in blues, rock and roll, and jazz.

While some Black AFM locals managed to succeed and grow, many locals found barriers to the lucrative work enjoyed by the members of the white locals. In San Francisco, in 1934, Black Local 648 sued larger, white Local 6 due to frustration about the control Local 6 had over employment in the region.

In Los Angeles, Local 47, an all-white union, negotiated contracts with the broadcast and motion picture companies, establishing scales and working conditions. The Black union in Los Angeles, Local 767, adopted those standards, in the rare case that a Black musician got a recording session call.

In the 1950s, the challenges and pressures of this musical segregation led groups of Black and white musicians to begin meeting to discuss the problems of segregation in the union. To unify, a movement to merge Locals 47 and 767, led by white and Black musicians, successfully concluded with the first merger of a segregated AFM local in Los Angeles in 1952.

While progress was made in Los Angeles in the 50 years since the first Black union was created, progress was slow coming to the rest of the Federation. Not until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did the process of merging unions throughout the AFM happen in earnest. During the late 1960s, the AFM began merging locals in compliance with federal law. James Petrillo, acting as the newly appointed head of the AFM’s Civil Rights department, guided a process that ultimately resulted in a significant number of forced mergers. However, employment for minority musicians did not necessarily improve. There was still very little representation of minorities employed under AFM agreements in the film industry and in symphonies.

Progressive anti-discrimination policies, such as screened auditions, were implemented to address discrimination in hiring. In the early 2000s, the AFM Convention created a standing Diversity Committee to aid in representing the vast geographic and musical communities within the union and put forward recommendations to strengthen our organization through diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts. Today, the committee continues to be active in developing strategies and recommendations encompassing diversity, working in partnership with Federation staff and officers.

For an update from the Diversity Committee, please read Chair Lovie Smith-Wright’s column on page 7.

† excerpt from More than Meets the Ear: How Symphony Musicians Made Labor History, by Julie Ayer.

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