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Home » Recent News » Why the AFM? Collective Action Across the Generations


Why the AFM? Collective Action Across the Generations

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by Rochelle Skolnick, AFM Symphonic Services Division Counsel

Rochelle-SkolnickI’ve been thinking a lot lately about the development of wages and conditions in American orchestras since the 1960s. Actually, “wages and conditions” doesn’t fully capture what’s been on my mind. What I’ve really been contemplating is the extraordinary development over the past 50-plus years of a symphonic work culture that allows a substantial number of orchestra musicians in this country to make a living and a livelihood in symphonic music. It was not always so.

One of my favorite nights of the year here in St. Louis is the last concert of the symphony’s subscription season, when retiring musicians are honored from the stage and at a party in the grand foyer of Powell Hall after the concert. There is food and drink and moving tributes from each retiring musician’s colleagues. A couple years ago, one of the honorees was contrabassoonist Brad Buckley, who served many years as a leader among his SLSO colleagues and famously as chair of ICSOM. The appreciation and respect demonstrated that night by Buckley’s colleagues and his management counterparts were a fitting tribute to someone who had given so much of himself over the years.

This year, I got to witness a similar celebration a week after the one in St. Louis, when I traveled back to my hometown orchestra and the Embassy Theater for my father’s final concert as principal tuba of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic. In the job for 45 seasons, Sam Gnagey saw the Ft. Wayne Phil grow its core from four to 44 during his tenure.

The musicians today have health insurance, pension contributions, and other benefits that make it possible for them to center their lives around their work in the orchestra (supplementing, of course, with teaching and other work) and to raise families and retire with dignity. I’m proud to say that some of those gains were attributable to work my dad was involved in, serving on orchestra committees, as a founding ROPA delegate, and as an officer of Local 58 (Fort Wayne, IN).

But those gains are not secure in Fort Wayne, where musicians have been working without a contract since the beginning of 2015; nor are similar gains made over the past 50-plus years secure anywhere, for any orchestra without constant vigilance and an ever-renewing dedication to collective action.

I fear that to younger generations of orchestra musicians raised in an “entrepreneurial” age of dwindling union density, the striving and sacrifice of previous generations of musicians is invisible. I worry that young musicians, who have spent their entire lives up until the moment they land their first orchestra job (and beyond, as long as they remain on the audition circuit) engaged in a Darwinian struggle for artistic survival, may not naturally adapt to a climate where collectivism brings the greatest rewards. I worry that older generations of musicians, already overstretched with existing obligations, won’t effectively pass on to their younger counterparts the lessons of history and help ignite in them the flame of collective action.

In this context, there are two things of which I am certain. First, in the absence of robust unionism, both within each of our orchestras and throughout the entire music business, we will sooner or later see all the gains we’ve made over the past 50-plus years crumble beneath our feet. And second, the AFM today provides musicians with a superb support structure for the kind of robust unionism necessary to preserve those gains and grow the industry for the next 50 years.

The lion’s share of symphonic collective bargaining takes place at the local level. The exception is Federation-negotiated media agreements, which govern creation of a product that, of course, knows no geographic bounds. Federation media bargaining allows the union to tap into the power of the “super-collective” of all musicians and ensures that compensation will be tailored to reflect the commercial value of the multitude of media products in today’s markets. But even local bargaining, between employers and local unions assisted by orchestra committees, takes place within a nurturing medium created and maintained by the AFM.

While the symphonic player conferences originated with a grain of sand—musicians’ dissatisfaction with a lack of democratic representation within their own union—ICSOM, ROPA, and OCSM are now pearls of the AFM, and are valued as such. Their networks of information sharing and collegial support, including highly effective “calls to action” supporting orchestras in trouble and annual conferences where musicians meet and share experiences, have become indispensable.

The Symphonic Services Division (SSD), created in response to demand from player conferences, functions exclusively to support symphonic musicians and their local unions. SSD maintains a wealth of resources, including wage and condition charts, a CBA database, and a series of educational webinars. And it employs a superb staff available to assist with bargaining, as well as contract administration and enforcement.

The AFM and Employers’ Pension Fund (AFM-EPF), a defined benefit holdout in a world where investment risk is increasingly shifted to pension participants, continues to provide a solid pillar for retirement security. The AFM Symphony-Opera Strike Fund and the AFM-ROPA Emergency Relief Fund provide much-needed benefits to musicians enduring a work stoppage, giving them sustenance to continue the fight.

AFM symphonic musicians benefit further from their association with musicians performing in all genres who share similar concerns about wages, working conditions, and the future of music as an art form. This larger community of musicians empowers the AFM to lobby for legislative and regulatory initiatives important to all musicians, such as those concerning ivory in musical instruments and airline carry-on rules. And all musicians benefit from the AFM’s affiliation with the AFL-CIO and its resources, connecting musicians to their union brothers and sisters working across a wide variety of industries and professions.

I know the orchestras of St. Louis and Fort Wayne are not alone in honoring retirees at season-ending concerts. In the coming season, let’s resolve that before these folks depart our stages for well-earned retirements, we sit down together with them and our newest orchestra members for a conversation about the gains the elders have seen in their professional lifetimes and the collective action with the AFM, which made it all possible. Conversations like these just might light a fire under the next generation of AFM activists!







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