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Home » Officer Columns » When Crisis Is Opportunity

When Crisis Is Opportunity

  -  AFM International Secretary-Treasurer

Whether it be on a local or national level, changes in industry practices—or in a union that represents the employees in that industry—generally come slowly. An institution with many constituent parts will rarely move far from the status quo, lest that institution get too far away from its perceived existential center and thereby alienate the constituency. Any rapid and significant change usually only arises from a crisis or constituent revolt.

Such a revolt occurred in the 1950s when the Hollywood recording musicians decertified the AFM as their film and phono union rep after then-President Petrillo, against their wishes, diverted their wage increases to the Music Performance Trust Fund. It took several years to repair that internal damage, but the event itself, and the solutions arrived at, rewired the AFM’s DNA so that recording musicians’ rights today are firmly embedded in the bylaws, practices and culture of AFM national contract bargaining.

Another such revolt occurred in the early 1960s in the symphonic world. Back in the day, the Almighty Music Director was the sole decider of who to hire and fire in “his” orchestra; contracts between the union and management were settled out of sight of the musicians; player committees were unheard of; and the phrase “ratification vote” was absent from the glossaries of the day.

Then the musicians of the major orchestras organized themselves into an action-oriented conference, positioned themselves to assert control of their contract negotiations, and gained job security through bargained audition, tenure, and fair dismissal procedures. Those achievements became a plateau of stability and security upon which many have counted on now for several decades.

The sexual assault and tenure issues recently reported involving the New York Philharmonic, however, have shaken that comfortable underpinning. The reporting and social commentary has exploded into full public view systemic harms that often plague the music world—namely, sexual harassment, peer pressure, bullying and intimidation, discrimination and retaliation, gender and race-based workplace toxicity, management indifference, and contract administration that makes the aggrieved musician the problem, instead of the actual problem itself. These issues are often widely known about but suppressed out of fear of retaliation and the need for “proof.” As an industry, as musicians, and as a union, we have been called out.

This is a crisis that requires all the interconnected parties—union, employer, and musicians—to do some rigorous self-examination and undertake serious (and probably multi-layered) actions for change. Union leaders and rank-and-file musicians—with management firmly in tow—must collaborate to make meaningful changes in our contracts, labor-management practices, values, and assumptions. And for that change to have real meaning, the silent musicians who have borne the brunt of those harms—the harassment, pressure, discrimination, toxicity, and indifference—must be consulted and heard.

Every musician deserves a safe working environment. After all, what’s a union for, if not for at least that one basic thing?

Alan Willaert and Victor Fuentealba

This issue is partly devoted to the lives of AFM Vice President from Canada Alan Willaert and President Emeritus Vic Fuentealba, whose deaths last month saddened us all. I add my own thoughts here.

I’ve known Alan Willaert since the day he was hired as an international representative for Canada over 30 years ago. Through thick and thin, hot and cold, up and down, Willaert was a rock. Always calm, cool, and collected. Always steady. Always funny (for which he often ended up in Facebook “jail”). His intelligence and experience operated to the benefit of all his bosses—from J. Alan Wood to Ray Petch to Dave Jandrisch to Bobby Herriot to Bill Skolnik—and prepared him beautifully for when he became the boss himself in 2012. I will miss him greatly.

Vic Fuentealba was AFM president when I got involved in local union administration. His tenure became the standard against which I measured all his successors. The 1980s was a tough decade in which to run this union—the challenges were immense, and he was not without his enemies, but his personal courage and feistiness powered him through it all. The most important pieces of advice he gave me as a union officer were: 1) don’t do something unless you have a very good reason to do it, and 2) take action only when you’ve done all the preparation.

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