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Home » Officer Columns » What Is Organizing, Anyway?

What Is Organizing, Anyway?

  -  AFM Organizing and Education Division Director

Welcome to the first Organizing-focused issue of the International Musician. You may be familiar with the phrase “organizing is the lifeblood of labor unions,” but what exactly is organizing? Broadly, it is people joining together around shared issues to build collective power and win positive change.

In my early career as a touring theater musician, I found myself the union steward—and I say “found myself” for a reason. Like a reversal of the old Groucho Marx joke—why would I want to be in a club that would have me as a member?—I would not work a job that did not have a steward, and since no one else stepped up, I volunteered. On that tour, one of the musicians was fired unfairly by management. The whole band saw the injustice of it, and we demanded that the company manager explain the situation to us as a group.

I didn’t realize that we were engaged in organizing at the time, and what we had done is commonly known as a “march on the boss”—when workers unite as one in their workplace to demand their employer take action. In this meeting, the company manager told us why our colleague was fired—and unwittingly revealed that the company had violated labor law. This gave us the power to file a grievance, which went to arbitration, and eventually our unfairly fired colleague won more than a year of back pay.

When we think of organizing, what usually comes to mind are fights to gain union recognition in a nonunion workplace. Recent very public campaigns at Amazon, Nissan, and Volkswagen show that this fight to establish unions is as urgent, and difficult, as ever before—and the landscape for working musicians is no different.

But new organizing is just the beginning, as we must continue to fight to improve our contracts, raise standards, build our locals, and broaden our solidarity within the larger labor community. Like my tour meeting example, even areas we don’t think of as organizing turn out to be organizing opportunities—whether it is a forming a musician committee for an upcoming contract negotiation, ensuring safe workplaces, campaigning to raise membership dues to hire needed staff, advocating for important legislative and policy changes, or engaging musicians who have no connection to our union.

All campaigns need the right strategy and plan, high member participation, and someone to guide the process—the organizer. By necessity, the organizer is often us. Our cover story on Local 77 (Philadelphia, PA), “Moving from Transactional to Transformative Unionism,” tells the story of three inspiring AFM local officers who realized very early that they had to be organizers in order to engage their members, develop member leaders, build collective power, and transform their union.

David vs. Goliath: Musicians Take on HBO—and Win” tells the story of how 27 musicians hired to appear in one scene in The Gilded Age TV series won AFM coverage for the entire show by standing together. It is a demonstration of the importance of developing our member-leaders as on-the-ground organizers. And it shows that, through good organizing, we can take on the biggest fish and win.

Todd Jelen’s “Organizing for a Successful Campaign” article details the elements of a successful organizing campaign, as shown in the success of Local 58 (Fort Wayne, IN) musicians to win a fair contract with Fort Wayne Philharmonic and bring music back to their community.

In my years as a working musician and AFM staff member, I’ve come to appreciate the phrase “organizing is organizing.” This means that the skills and methods of union organizing don’t change because we are musicians and not nurses or machinists, nor does it matter what genre or type of work we do.

Two recent organizing successes could not have been more different. In one, musicians performing on TV shows such as Jimmy Kimmel Live! and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert launched their #RespectUs contract campaign to demand that CBS, Disney/ABC, and NBC pay them fairly for streamed content. This campaign featured a march and rally from the Ed Sullivan Theater to ABC studios in Times Square, and saw tv musicians directly confronting network bosses on structural racism within the live TV industry.

In the second, musicians of the Boise Philharmonic united to gain a meaningful voice and the ability to negotiate an enforceable contract covering their work. The momentum they built from this campaign led them to form Local 423 (Boise, ID), our newest AFM local. Whether our employers are small nonprofits or the largest media companies in the world, the methods and skills we use to build our collective power are the same.

While organizing is organizing, musicians do bring one unique factor to the table when it comes to public action—music! What we may lack in sheer numbers, we can make up for in literal volume—at our own public actions, or those of other workers we are supporting. Having a live band in the street gets attention, and this is something that can be done in every AFM local regardless of size. As a start to embracing organizing, look for opportunities to collectively support your own campaigns—and those of your local labor allies—by making some (musical) noise.

Also, see Recommended Reading List for union organizers…

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