Musicians Hope Their "Craft Union" Will 'Get Real'

In 1997, a group of union musicians formed a task force to analyze the structure of the American Federation of Musicians. They were looking for ways the AFM could better serve its membership. The task force presented its proposals for change at the AFM convention last August--but the AFM leadership rejected them.

The union's structure is not designed to protect members, said David Angus, president of the International Conference of Symphonic and Operatic Musicians, the unit of the AFM which created the task force.

"AFM is more a craft union, more a guild than a union, really," said Robert Levine, national chair of ICSOM and a viola player for the Milwaukee Symphony.

One of several conferences within the AFM for specialty musicians, ICSOM wants to make the AFM more like "a real union." It wants consistent, enforced contracts.

The members of the AFM's 300 locals are mostly freelancers and part-timers, with only about 15-25 percent working full time under collective bargaining agreements. Hard numbers are difficult to come by, because many musicians in collective bargaining units still work on a freelance basis, and not under collective bargaining agreements.

"It's a funny business," said Levine.

MOSTLY PART-TIMERS

It was the structure of the AFM that spurred the creation of ICSOM in 1962. Then, as now, the nature of musical work made it difficult for musicians to get strong representation. Most musicians have always been freelancers, getting paid by the performance by theaters, dance clubs, even other musicians. The AFM functioned primarily by collecting dues, setting pay-per-performance rates, and providing retirement and death benefits. Where there were collective bargaining units, the contracts could be changed, sometimes in favor of employers, by the national leadership.

For operatic and symphonic musicians, who usually work for orchestras and other organizations, collective bargaining over pay, work time, and conditions has always been significant. The musicians who formed ICSOM wanted to negotiate and ratify their own contracts, rather than having this done by the larger AFM leadership. They wanted rank and filers on the bargaining committee.

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"You had some union officers who were employers, contractors," said Levine. "They were all too eager to see management's point of view."

Angus says that today, ICSOM's collective bargaining approach has become even more necessary. "Our employers are often not-for-profits, and conservatives are more in charge of funding sources," explained Angus, who plays the French horn for the Rochester Philharmonic. "And giving to the arts is down. There are those who...think of the orchestra of the future as a collection of independent contractors."

SHRINKING MEMBERSHIP

One big issue for the AFM is a shrinking membership, creating financial problems. So far, the union has responded by increasing "work dues," a percentage (usually between 0.5 and 3 percent) of a member's earnings, assessed in addition to the yearly flat rates that constitute the regular union dues.

ICSOM suggests that restructuring the AFM is a better idea, saying it would both save the AFM money and help the union better protect its members.

But the AFM's old orientation is very entrenched.

"You have people running locals who are not trained officers," said ICSOM secretary Lucinda-Lewis, a French hornist in the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. "Many of the locals are run by retired club-date or freelance musicians who've never worked under a collective bargaining agreement."

ICSOM is still working on changing the AFM. And while "we are a little unusual and off the beaten track," says Angus, they are also building relationships with members of more traditional unions, like the UAW and Teamsters.