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Home » Officer Columns » Will the Pandemic Cause a Resurgence in Unionism? Solidarity is Key

Will the Pandemic Cause a Resurgence in Unionism? Solidarity is Key

  -  AFM International President

The Great Depression of the 1930s and the advent of World War II jump-started the union movement, which grew workplace unionism until two things happened. First, the expansion of globalism in the latter 20th century allowed capital to circle the world to find cheaper sources of labor. Secondly, President Ronald Reagan fired 11,000 air traffic controllers represented by the Professional Air Traffic Controllers (PATCO) union during a bitter 1981 labor dispute, busting the union and hiring replacement workers to work longer hours for less money. 

Prior to PATCO, it was not acceptable for employers to replace striking workers, even though the law gave employers the right to do so. The PATCO strike eased those inhibitions. Nationwide, union membership began to decline. With the advent of COVID-19 and its economic effects, some believe that a union resurgence is underway. 

During the pandemic, digitization and automation of work has accelerated, brought on by changes in demand. In-person services in banking, retail, hospitality, travel, education, and healthcare have declined. 

Jobs in the live entertainment sector—deemed “non-essential” and with venues closed by governmental decree—have vanished. Pandemic economics and pandemic politics are determining how live music and the gig economy will be reorganized. High unemployment will continue. Many gigs will not return in any eventual recovery. Surviving small businesses are reopening with diminished clientele, fewer employees, additional part-time workers, and lower pay.

On the other hand, in essential services like policing and firefighting, healthcare, warehousing, public transportation, food production and distribution, trucking, shipping and delivery, communications infrastructure, and hands-on public employment, demand for workers is increasing, putting upward pressure on wages and benefits. 

Unionized workers, whether essential or non-essential, are in much better shape to weather the pandemic. Pressure from the union and threats of concerted activity are the only reason employers don’t behave worse. 

Employers today are lobbying state and federal legislators to be shielded from legal liability for workplace coronavirus spread. The Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) hasn’t investigated most of the thousands of employee complaints about infection risks in the workplace, according to the AFL-CIO. As a result, we have seen increased militancy, sick-outs, and work stoppages by workers at Amazon warehouses, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Target, and Instacart, as well as by California farm workers, Detroit bus drivers, Alameda nurses, Chicago teachers, and GM auto workers, with workplace safety a top priority. For many essential workers, COVID issues illuminated the ways they were being shafted. 

And of course, our employers may say that we (not the managers) need to take concessions until they think their companies are strong enough to afford to pay us more. And for many of the major employers of musicians in our communities, managers are prioritizing what they can keep for themselves during the pandemic, while musicians are seen as disposable. It’s about management without music, because taking care of those who make the music is a poison pill. The musicians of our communities are the faces of the live music business, not the venue managers. I’ve never seen anyone buy a ticket to a show to see a manager manage.

The pandemic has locked out musicians and our audiences, too. It has shuttered our venues and restricted demand for live entertainment. Against the fear of a second wave of infections, you could give employers everything they want and it would do nothing to increase demand.

More than ever during this devastating pandemic, we need solidarity when our workplaces reopen. Solidarity is the glue that holds the band, the ensemble, and the union together. It is both an asset and a liability. It’s a liability because it depends on musicians closing ranks and working together as a whole, which doesn’t always occur, and it rarely happens in a workplace where union members are pitted against each other—or where members help management do it—or when members collaborate with management to help the employers get what they want from us. Organizing solidarity is a daunting task, but when achieved, it works well.

The history of this union is the story of a culture of divisiveness. Disunity is in our DNA. Our union was born of disunity 124 years ago, and as your president, I’ve done everything possible to get everybody out in the open and on the same page to build union power. Our union’s history is also the story of people, activists, committee folks, and elected officials on the inside whose personal agendas are camouflaged in contract issues, who want issues to break their way, and when they don’t, become determined to destroy the union from the inside. There have been union leaders, some with self-serving, selfish political agendas who sought office not to preserve, protect, and defend the union—and who couldn’t really lead the union, or the local, or the committee, or the bargaining unit toward a unified voice—but who just wanted to get control, then outsource leadership responsibilities to “experts,” outside lawyers, etc. That is a recipe for disaster. The experts aren’t fiduciaries. The union leaders are. If you are an elected union rep, a committee person, or a member of a negotiating team and you organize for self-centered divisiveness, you will lose. Fighting for unity and fairness is your only hope of getting through this pandemic. We can win if we stick together, because we are stronger together.

If you negotiate with management against the backdrop of this pandemic, pick your negotiating team carefully. Ask questions about how they will respond to demands for concessions. Ask them what they will do to organize unity. Check for personal agendas. Managers sometimes elevate the status of certain individuals to help employers achieve concessions. Do your employers want to create hierarchies, or tiered wages, pushing down money for musicians on the lower rungs of a ladder who become grist for the mill? Is that fair? Are some individuals more important than the collective? Managers love hierarchies, by the way, for obvious reasons.

Unity is achieved by keeping an eye on fairness, dovetailing interests, keeping everyone motivated and involved. Particularly during this deadly pandemic, if you have unity, you have a chance to win.