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Home » Organizing » The Union Difference, and Why It Matters

The Union Difference, and Why It Matters

  -  AFM Organizing and Education Division Director

As our cover story this month illustrates, the lines between opportunity and employment are often blurred in the minds of working musicians. Whether we are “students” who are being paid less than professionals, or freelance musicians eager to take every opportunity, it is easy to rationalize that the details don’t matter, or that the connections we are making are more valuable than being treated fairly. This assumes that we even know what fair treatment and fair standards for our work are.

Those who work union jobs are aware of the union difference—those basic standards that are typically found only in union work. Here are a few:

  • Cartage: Musicians, such as upright bassists and harpists, receive additional payment when they must travel these large instruments to rehearsals and gigs.
  • Doubling: When musicians are required to play more than one instrument or family of instruments, they receive additional payment.
  • Pension: Employer-paid (not musician-paid) contributions to the US or Canadian pension funds, which provide guaranteed retirement income based on the amount of pension contributions paid over a career.
  • Recording and media: If musicians’ audio or audiovisual performances are captured, they are paid when those recordings are used in the future.
  • Health and safety: A union agreement contains health and safety standards and procedures. And in unionized workplaces, musicians can exercise their collective power as a union to enforce these provisions.
  • Job security: On union jobs that provide long-term employment, musicians enjoy protections against discrimination, and being fired or demoted unfairly.

If I’m Only Working One or Two Days, Why Does It Matter?

Much of the work of freelance musicians is short-term, whether recording a score for a few days, performing a run of Oklahoma! at the local dinner theater, or backing up a touring pop artist on their local stop. If it’s only a few days of work, what’s the harm?

First, many musicians make the bulk of their living by working hundreds of these short-term gigs in a year. Second, when we work outside of our union standards—especially for for-profit employers—we erode our collective power by showing employers we are willing to work for less.

Imagine you hold a chair in your unionized local orchestra, where you and your colleagues are pushing for an increase in wages in your current contract negotiation. The week before, you and half the orchestra worked a nonunion show called “Arcade Live” at the local arena—for $20 less than the orchestra’s base wage.

How will it affect your power to ask for higher orchestra wages, if your donation-dependent nonprofit orchestra found out that many members gave a discount to the for-profit “Arcade Live” producer—who raked in six figures from last week’s performance?

It is naïve to think that union and non-union employment are independent and unaffected by each other; that non-union activity doesn’t impact the standards and wages we have fought to achieve. So, what can you do to protect our collective union standards?

For one-day employment, you may file single-engagement contracts that respect your local wage scales and conditions. And you can reach out to colleagues and your local to find out what those scales and conditions are.

You may also ask beforehand if a job is union or not. If it is not, contact your local union. If other members have raised a red flag, this may be an opportunity to organize the work.

Most importantly, you have the opportunity to educate yourself, your colleagues, your students, and all current and future working musicians on “the union difference” and what it means.

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