Diving Head First Into Union Politics

Although this blog is designed to focus on issues related to orchestra management, every now and then it takes a road less traveled. Today, we’re taking a sharp left onto the side streets of internal politics within the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), the union which represents the majority of professional orchestra musicians…

This week witnessed the 97th AFM convention and events from this year’s conference will have a significant impact on the lives of professional orchestra musicians. Perhaps the most pressing of these issues was brought to public attention by International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) chairperson, Bruce Ridge (bassist in the North Carolina Symphony) in his public letter entitled A Call to Action. In that letter, Bruce outlines concerns over whether or not the AFM can prove there is sincere need for a proposed .10 percent increase in work dues for ICSOM member musicians and if an increase would result in improved services for symphonic and opera orchestra musicians.

Although a .10 percent increase may not sound like much here’s how that fraction of a percent adds up:

  • The average ICSOM symphonic orchestra base musician salary was $61,129 (this does not include opera or ballet musicians).
  • On average, each of those 41 ensembles employs at least 75 full time musicians earning no less than base salary.
  • As such, a .10 percent increase in work dues among those musicians ensures the AFM no less than $187,971. [$61,129 x 75]41 x .001 = $187,971
    Unsurprisingly, this figure will be much higher when you factor in average salaries in place of base salaries as well as include the salaries of ICSOM opera and ballet musicians in addition to the nearly 5,000 musicians belonging to the Regional Orchestra Players Association (ROPA), among which the symphonic orchestra musicians earn an average annual base salary of approximately $13,000 each.

In order to gain a better understanding of why this is such an issue for orchestral musicians, you have to go back to 2003, the last time the AFM raised work dues for symphonic and opera musicians (.05 percent). According to Bruce Ridge, in response to concerns from the players conferences (ICSOM and ROPA) promises were made at that time by AFM Finance Committee Chair, Harry Chanson, that this increase in work dues would be “a package that will do it” with regard to improving services for symphonic and opera orchestra musicians.

In particular, the increased dues would be allocated toward increased staffing and project funding at the AFM’s Symphonic Services Division (SSD), the department responsible for offering advice as well as providing direct assistance and support with all symphonic related issues. As it turns out, those improvements did not materialize in a way which ICSOM officers had anticipated. Particular grievances were outlined in the A Call To Action letter with regard to issues of inequity in how the AFM currently prioritizes expenditures:

  • For the years 2002-2006, the symphonic surplus (i.e., the amount of symphonic work dues paid to the Federation minus what was expended for symphony-related expenses) was nearly $5.5 million.
  • Despite this symphonic surplus and the increased share of work dues paid by orchestra musicians, the Symphonic Services Division (SSD) of the AFM has only 8 employees, some of them part-time. Salaries for the employees of the SSD are not competitive with other fields.
  • Other divisions of the AFM that have a fraction of the surplus revenue brought in from orchestra musicians have more than three times the number of employees working on their behalf! (We certainly are not suggesting that there are too many employees in these other divisions, but the inequity is obvious.)

To give you a better idea of the details in those points, you have to do some digging into the AFM’s 2006 Form LM-2 (a mandatory Labor Organization Annual Report overseen by the U.S. Department of Labor (think of it like an IRS Form 990 for unions). For example, with regard to issues of understaffing the eight employees within SSD (two of which are stationed in Canada) comprise 9.625 percent of the AFM’s 77 employees during that year. Furthermore, salaries among full time SSD employees range from a low of $32,903 (SSD Contract Administrator Eric Beers – who has since left that position) and a high of $80,043 (SSD Director Laura Brownell) [We’ll examine what SSD employees do in a future article].

In essence, if the proposed .10 percent work dues increase is enacted by the AFM following the recent convention, the increased revenue flowing into the AFM would equal or exceed the cumulative AFM expenditures on SSD employee salaries in 2006. In essence, the AFM could use that increased revenue to double the number of full time SSD employees while simultaneously eliminating pay discrepancies.

A Call To Action (as well as a similar position paper presented by ROPA) demands accountability among their AFM’s officers as well as insisting that their fair share of work dues be directed toward improved symphonic orchestra and opera services. In the end, orchestra musicians may end up using their decades of experience organizing at the ensemble level to coordinate a plan of action to ensure that their union’s stewards are effectively meeting their needs. Perhaps unsurprisingly, all the musicians appear to require is the same level of accountability they expect from the stewards of their respective ensembles.

As it stands now, given how much the AFM relies on professional orchestra musicians to keep the union financially solvent, the newly re-elected AFM leadership will meet the expectations outlined in A Call To Action or they may force their orchestra musician members into a position which requires them to take action.

POSTSCRIPT – 2:25am 6/21/2007
According to ICSOM chairperson, Bruce Ridge, the financial package adopted by the AFM in the eleventh hour did not include any increase in symphonic work dues.

You can expect more on this topic in the near future so stay tuned…

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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