Us vs. Them – Why Unions Are Failing Its Members

Having recently spent eight straight days in meetings related to the musicians’ union, I see why the AFM is failing its members.  Like most unions, it is creating an “Us vs. Them” mentality when it comes to contractors and management.  This may work well for other unions, but when it comes to musicians, we are all our own contractors and managers.  Most of my musician friends are self-employed, self-managed musicians who are trying to make a living doing what they love – making music!  Some get together with other self-managed musicians and give shows or create ensembles with the hopes of being hired as a group for shows.  Very few are fortunate enough to have a W-2 employer that guarantees hours and wages and working conditions on a regular basis, and these are usually under a collective bargaining agreement.  So why is the AFM treating its own members as the enemy?

The overall theme from the 99th AFM Convention was to show unity amongst its members and Locals.  Yes, I’m all for unity with musicians and supporting each other.  However, I saw more hatred of employers and managers (although some did deserve the negative attention) than I have ever seen.  I do not recall ever any praise of members who are also creating jobs and work for their own members.  There was no celebration of the members who are contractors that are filing contracts and paying work dues and pension voluntarily on behalf of the working musicians.  The focus was more on how can we FORCE organizing on groups and genres of musicians instead of giving them a reason to join voluntarily.  The AFM is failing to realize that being forced into something creates resentment and anger.  Sometimes, this approach is successful in a campaign, but in many locations and states that are right-to-work, this may spell disaster.

Now the AFM is trying to further limit who can serve on the board and as officers.  It is public record that the current AFM bylaws do not allow Local Officers to be a personnel manager for any employer of musicians in the Local’s jurisdiction.  It also forbids any Local Officer from being a contractor of musicians in the musical theatre field.  Now, according to the 99th AFM Convention, the International Executive Board is taking into consideration that no AFM member employed in any management or supervisory capacity by an organization which is party to a CBA with an AFM Local shall serve as a Local Officer, Executive Board Member, Delegate or Alternate Delegate in any AFM Local (this proposal was published in the International Musician of May 2013 and referred to the IEB in July 2013).

I understand that the AFM is trying to avoid a conflict of interest amongst its members; however, perhaps these rules should be something decided in each Local.  In smaller Locals, the contractors and managers are also the officers as they may be the only ones seeking a leadership role in their Locals.  In medium to larger Locals, the pool of candidates is larger, but is the interest there?  It is my opinion that the AFM is shooting itself in the foot by creating these bylaws and forcing those board members out of office who are actually working musicians and trying to do things ethically.

Entice people to join; don’t force them.  As a contractor myself, I give the specific reasons for joining the AFM to each musician I hire.  Since we perform in various states within the USA, I explain that not every state is like ours and that some venues require union membership.  Yes, there are many other reasons, which are detailed in a separate blog post. 

On the other hand, after personally witnessing the anger against employers of musicians at this convention, I truly felt that they were angry with me. I have the rare seat of being on both sides of the table when it comes to music and musicians.  I am a manager, contractor, and leader, as well as the business owner with ALL the financial stake in it.  I am the “enemy” of the union, as they call it.  What they fail to realize is that I am the one creating the jobs, and want to do it with the union as a partnership, not as an “us against them” mentality. 
 Not all contractors are evil.  I am not the enemy to which I believe they think I am.

When the Walt Disney Company wanted to create their magical world in Central Florida, they contacted Local 389 to work as a partnership for their musical entertainment needs.  It was not forced upon the company; it was a voluntary business relationship that still exists today.  Most contractors, I find, actually want to do it as a partnership with the unions.  In some cases, it’s the unions that don’t want to work with them.  And they wonder why unions have a bad reputation?!?!?!  Having served on the Board and as a Delegate for 12 years, I have experienced what the AFM leadership calls unionism.  Are they slowly changing to my way of thinking?  Perhaps, but it may be too late.  One of the Diversity Committee members once said that the AFM is “too male, too pale and too stale.”  I would like to add “and very slow to change.”  After what I witnessed, I am not sure if the AFM is headed in the recruitment and retention direction, or the direction of “tick off all musicians so they will quit or never join the AFM in the first place.” Only time will tell.

Speaking of time, while serving as a Delegate for ten (10) total days to this 99th Convention, I had to turn down seven (7) paid gigs for myself and musicians who rely on me for work.  This has caused me to rethink everything.  These musicians are relying on me for work, and I can’t be turning it down just to sit in meetings for 8 days plus 2 travel days.  I’m not paid as a Board Member or as a Delegate; it’s all-volunteer and it costs me a LOT of money to do it.  Therefore, I officially resigned as a Board Member and Delegate with my Local’s Executive Board, effective December 31, 2013, or earlier if they find a replacement.  I am a musician, and I am thankful that I can make my living and career as a working musician.  I don’t want to spend any more of my time in meetings arguing over the rules for/against musicians and management.  It is time for me to pass the baton to the next person, whoever that may be.  My hope is that the AFM will change its thinking to be more inclusive of its own members as contractors and managers, and that the “next” person will be an influence to this.