Should Orchestra Musicians Leave The AFM?

Yesterday’s post on the recommendation by the American Federation of Musicians’ (AFM) International Executive Board (IEB) to give officers an unaudited $10,000 discretionary spending account has generated a considerable amount of feedback throughout social network sites and private email messages. One item that repeatedly pops up is whether or not orchestra musicians would be better served by staying within or leaving the AFM. Consequently, let’s find out what readers thin

Sorry, this poll is closed, you can see the final outcome here.

Need to know more in order to form some opinions?

In the meantime, I encourage everyone to submit a comment with your thoughts and observations on this topic. At the very least, it’s a fascinating topic.

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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10 thoughts on “Should Orchestra Musicians Leave The AFM?”

  1. I know of a number of locals where orchestra members have increasingly begun running for office simply to get SOME local representation happening on behalf of their colleagues.

    By contrast, I am very fortunate to be a member of a local where the needs and feelings of our orchestra members (and of ICSOM) are INCREDIBLY well represented, and have been for years. (A huge tip o’ the hat to Erich Graf is in order here.)

    There is an old saying/curse that goes, “May you live in interesting times.” These are most certainly ‘interesting times’ both for North American orchestras and for the AFM.

    …and ergo ‘the popcorn’ I mentioned yesterday.

  2. A lack of local response to an orchestra led to the Seattle SO leaving the AFM over 20 years ago. However, the BIG problem for full-time musicians is on the national AFM level. Orchestra members need to run for office in their locals (yes, it’s a burden) and become delegates to the AFM Convention. If enough orchestra musicians do this, there’s a chance of changing the AFM.

  3. When you get any long-established power structure, what might have started under noble intention inevitable becomes infected with self-interest. Are those union dues helping support working musicians or just feeding a bureaucracy?

    But let’s be honest: while this particular issue with union management is a problem, the union is a major part of a much greater problem and potential solution in American orchestras. Drew, you were at the Orchestra Summit in Ann Arbor when I flat-out asked the musicians what role the union would have in the evolution of symphony orchestras – I basically got non-answers from both the panelists. The unions have to be more flexible and creative, instead of serving their own entrenched interests.

    I recently listened to the podcast of an address by Willie Brown, a very prominent Democratic politician in California, and at one point he gave an interesting assessment of labor unions. In addressing a question regarding the waning power of unions, he first stated that “working people have never been the problem and never will be the problem”. But then he observed that union rank-and-file will be more willing to respond to strong leaders, even circumventing the union management. Whereas union leaders have to continue fighting for higher wages and better benefits, lest they risk getting voted out, the rank-and-file have a more pragmatic view: they understand that, during the worst economic crisis in decades, they have to make sacrifices too.

    BTW, the AFM Exec Board might want to read up on diversity: holy cow, that’s a lot of old white guys!

    • Hi Darren, thanks for the comment. In all fairness, I’, not sure what any of the player reps could have said in response to your question without turning the session toward specific issues. At the same time, I think musicians’ unions have always had a strong role in the evolution of orchestras. The very nature of a collective bargaining agreement assures a certain amount of influence.

      However, I think it would be enormously useful to distinguish between direct orchestra musician participation and that of their national union in the development and operating parameters of contemporary professional orchestras. Based on my observations, the former (in the context of individual orchestra committees) has far more impact than the latter.

      Due to the amount of self reliance or orchestra musicians on matters related to collective bargaining, I do think it is a mistake to compare the musicians’ unions with other labor groups. Nonetheless, it is increasingly clear that the national leadership of the AFM is behaving much more like the model you’re portraying.

      One last point, I have yet to encounter a single orchestra committee that has refused to take any concessions during the past two years. To elude otherwise is not only unfair but inaccurate. I don’t think your intent was to make it seem otherwise but feel free to elaborate on that point.

      Interestingly enough, I always find it amusing when listening to musicians complain about their national leadership and League members complaining about that organization. In most cases, the frustrations are nearly identical and conclusions inevitably end up to the point your comment started with: When you get any long-established power structure, what might have started under noble intention inevitable becomes infected with self-interest.

      • Hi Drew,

        It seems that some orchestra committees have been more willing to negotiate than others recently. While most orchestra staff have suffered salary and benefit cuts, some multiple rounds, some contract negotiations have been contentious and distracting. Cleveland and Detroit seem to fit that mold. Yes, other negotiations have been easier.

        As for the League . . . well, topic for another day! 🙂

      • I think those two groups are good examples of what I was referring to. Although certainly not equal, I don’t think either was unwilling to accept cuts; instead, it was an issue of how much and under what sort of economic recovery conditions.

        It’s also important to point out that staff have no say in their cuts, unlike other stakeholders. Consequently, even if 100% of them disagreed with the conditions of their cuts or the strategic direction of the organization, you wouldn’t know about it becasue they don’t have the same conditions to voice their concerns as do musicians. This is why I’m rarely comfortable with using that as a point of comparison. In the worst of conditions, they can be used by managers with ill intentions as unwitting leverage.

        Re the League, I wholehearted agree!

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