Examining The Union’s Role

The recent announcement from the Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union that they will leave the AFL-CIO was headline news yesterday. As a result, I received a few intriguing email messages from readers about how this will impact the American Federation of Musicians…


Some messages were from musicians worried that this action would lead to the eventual collapse of the AFM and other messages were from players who were hoping that the AFM would fall apart. I wrote back to each of the individuals with the same response: what happens in the AFL-CIO doesn’t really impact what happens to the musicians unions so stop worrying and/or rejoicing.

Although the AFM is governed by the same NLRB laws which oversee every other trade union, the musicians’ unions have never been the standard sort of “beef or chicken” fare as are most other labor unions, instead, they’re “the other white meat” (or perhaps they should be called “the other tofurky” since a lot of musicians seem to be vegetarians or vegans).

I’ve always disliked using the term “labor” when referring to orchestra musicians organized under a collective bargaining agreement. That’s one of the last words I would ever use to describe them, it just doesn’t fit. Instead, when I think of the musicians’ unions (there’s two of them by the way; the AFM and IGSOBM) I think of something like the airline pilots unions.

Musicians, by nature, gravitate toward collective representation. As such, they have the same internal problems that any large collective group would have and the more members of varying backgrounds you add, the higher the possibility for internal disagreement.

One of the reasons I’m not disturbed by the break up of the AFL-CIO is that the AFM, with all of its pros and cons, is better equipped to handle internal debate and disagreement. Over the past decade, it doesn’t appear to squash external debate about controversial internal issues as much as I witness in other unions (or even the we’re not really a union, we just act like one “service organization”, the American Symphony Orchestra League).

For example, one of the best niche blogs I’ve read in a long while is from Robert Levine, current president of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8, chairman emeritus of ICSOM, former editor of Senza Sordino, and principal violist of the Milwaukee Symphony. He writes the blog The AFM Observer which examines issues relevant to the AFM and its orchestra musician members (along with a few mini blogs about the AFM which you can link to from his main site).

Robert’s been around the block, in a good way, and knows the particulars of the AFM and its conferences (ICSOM and ROPA) just about as well as anyone can. I call Robert’s blog a “niche blog” because you really have to have a basic understanding of the AFM and its nomenclature in order to understand most of what Robert is writing about (Robert, if you’re reading this please add a glossary). But don’t let that scare you away from dropping by, you can learn something about what really concerns musicians and some of the issues which have grown into full blown controversies.

Although you might think that the AFM is falling apart with such open examination of sensitive issues, the opposite is really true. In the end, regardless of how much angst blogs like Robert’s may cause some of the AFM’s movers and shakers, the entire union will be better off in the end. Mark my words, you can start worrying if this sort of free discussion ever fades away.

Change is difficult, change is turbulent, and change is painful. Nevertheless, change is necessary for survival. That’s the mantra here at Adaptistration and it’s every bit as true for the musicians’ unions as it is for orchestra managers.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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