Unions – Why Be a Member?

For the past ten years, I have served as an International Delegate to the International Convention of the American Federation of Musicians of the United States and Canada on behalf of the Central Florida Musicians’ Association.  As we approach the upcoming convention, my mind has been tasked with understanding the significance and purpose of my responsibilities as a member and a delegate.  This has led to my questioning the need for unions in today’s America.

Perception becomes reality.

The very public actions of a few can create the perception of the many.

The word “union” now has a very negative connotation in today’s USA.  News of strikes, lockouts, and furloughs are being broadcast everywhere, and most people are blaming unions for these work stoppages.  Rarely is it ever broadcast about the good things unions are doing and have done for many years in the past.

It is unfortunate, but since the word “union” now has a very negative meaning, I believe that the AFM and CFM should avoid its use until the meaning comes back to what is intended.  Either that, or the AFM and CFM should join with the other unions to CHANGE THE MINDS of the American people.   Show all of us that a union is not a bunch of thugs and power-hungry gangsters trying to stronghold companies into doing what they want with no regard for the organizations that created those jobs.  It is called bargaining for a reason – all sides must come together to reach a compromise.

It is my understanding that unions were originally created as a way for a small group of people to negotiate with employers on behalf of a larger group of workers.  Some workers are able to negotiate their own working conditions, hours, pay, etc., but when many of the workers are not able or just don’t know how to do this, they need someone to help them.  Many employers and companies were/are shown as being tyrannical and only concerned about the profit margins at any cost to the workers, and would threaten the loss of jobs if workers did not give in to these employer demands.  I’m not saying that there was/is not abuse of this power by the employers, but any employer knows that without good employees, there would be no company at all!

Workers who were able to understand this negotiation process were “looked to” by other workers, and even given the authority to negotiate on another’s behalf.  I believe that this authority was originally given freely, and not by coercion or peer pressure.  In later years and in certain situations, coercion and peer pressure were involved in forcing workers to join their respective unions, and this may be where the negativity of association began.

But can the AFM and CFM single-handedly change the perception of unions?  We are significantly different from other unions.  We represent tens of thousands of musicians, many of whom are freelance artists or small ensembles (bands, etc.)  Most of the “corporations” with whom we deal are symphony orchestras, venues, theme parks and recording studios.  It’s not like we deal with a few major companies that employ hundreds of thousands of workers across the USA and Canada; we have thousands of companies with handfuls of musicians at each company.  Many of these “companies” are symphonies that are struggling to make payroll and hoping to survive in the next decade.  With fewer companies willing to negotiate with the AFM and CFM, fewer musicians are joining the union; thus further giving the word union a bad name.

“So why should I join?”  This question is asked to me almost every day as I work with students who are considering a career in music.  My answers are usually very specific to the individual, based on what I have learned about him/her.  Here are the reasons I use the most:

  1. Networking – I have met musicians from all over the world and have been able to contact them for conversation and discussions.  My AFM membership opened that door, and this has led to more knowledge, more interactions, and ultimately MORE WORK.
  2. States have different laws – yes, the USA is one country, but each state has its own rules and laws regarding workers.  Only 24 states are “right to work” where employees are not required to be union to work in certain job classifications.  In the other 26 states and the District of Columbia, employers can require you to show your Union Card, or they will not support your work there.  In order for musicians to work in other countries, some require Union membership to cross the border.  Also, the AFM helps musicians obtain the proper work visas to work in other countries in the world.  AFM membership is VERY important if you are wanting to be a touring musician.  Although I am in a right to work state, I encourage all musicians working with me to join the AFM since we do travel and work in other states and countries.  Only those who are members of the AFM are invited to tour with me and my ensembles.
  3. Pension and Retirement – the AFM has a wonderful pension plan!  As a working musician my whole life, I am planning for my retirement in a multitude of ways.  The main way I am preparing is by being a part of the AFM EPF (pension fund).  As a contractor, I contribute to this plan on behalf of every person I employ and on every job.
  4. Recording benefits – I file an AFM contract for each recording in which I am involved.  The AFM has an entire team dedicated to find when recordings are used again and find money for me and the other artists when they are used in something other than the original recording.  It’s like found money when this happens.
  5. Insurance – some Locals offer health benefits (differs by state); some Locals offer liability insurance (differs by Local); some Locals offer instrument insurance and/or life insurance.
  6. Credibility – when you are a member of the AFM or CFM, you are considered a true musician.  You understand the importance of being in such a prestigious organization, and the opportunities that it affords you.  This membership card stating that you are a member of a professional group of musicians is just as important as having a college degree with a piece of paper that states you have completed the work to earn that degree.  An AFM card carries weight and clout.
  7. Audition notices – unless you are scouring the “want ads” for every ensemble, the AFM has a collective source where all of its member organizations can post audition notices.  This is very important for those wanting careers in a symphony orchestra.

Although I can name several dozen other reasons why I am a member, these are the ones that seem to encourage people to join the AFM.  The NEED is still here for the musicians’ union.  We must be willing to work together to keep live music alive, not only in symphonies, but in clubs and venues and even churches.

We have to focus on the reasons for membership in order to grow it.  We cannot and should not force people to join as that continues to breed negativity associated with us and other unions.  The AFM needs to stop acting like the modern interpretation of a “union,” and start acting like the professional organization for which it was intended.  Change the minds of the American people.  If we continue in our current habits and actions, then there will be no AFM at all, and every benefit listed above will be lost.


For the first time ever, the AFM International Convention will be streamed LIVE to AFM members starting Monday, July 22 through the end of the convention on Thursday, July 25, 2013.  Here is the link for viewing:  http://afm.org/news/live-video-of-afm-convention-july-22-25

Interested in joining the AFM?  Join here:  https://www.afm.org/join/