The AFM International Unfair List, Defined

Although it has been in effect for months now, some folks aren’t aware that the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) placed the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) on their International Unfair List per request of AFM Local 5 (the office which represents the DSO musicians). Although this isn’t an unusual course of action during a work stoppage, not everyone is aware of what this decision entails…

How It Is Defined

According to AFM Symphonic Services Division Director, Christopher Durham, the International Unfair List is an “internal procedure which alerts AFM members to a primary labor dispute involving the AFM or Local affiliate with an employer of its members.”

If the AFM determines that it has a primary labor dispute with an employer, or upon request of the AFM by a Local who determines they have a primary labor dispute with an employer, the employer may be placed on the International Unfair List.

How It Impacts Musicians

According to Durham, the AFM Bylaws maintains specific guidelines on how to address any violations.

The AFM Bylaws are specific in that “Members shall not render musical services for organizations, establishments, or people who have been placed on the International Unfair List…” If a member is found guilty of violating this by-law the International Executive Board may, at its discretion, impose a fine of not less than $10.00 nor more than $50,000.00.

When asked whether or not the AFM has had to take action against a member for violating the by-law within the past decade, Durham indicated that it was a moot point.

No AFM member has crossed the picket line of an AFM symphony orchestra within the past decade. I believe this is due to the professional respect members have for each other and for themselves. In Detroit, the employers’ demands are so egregious that musicians everywhere are conscious of the fallout in making such an agreement. Hypothetically if a member were charged under such a scenario they would not necessarily be expelled from the union, they would more likely be fined as the bylaw provides. The last thing the AFM wants to do is to penalize one of its own but I do believe the International Executive Board would take any instance of a member crossing a picket line very seriously and exercise their full right to discipline.

How It Impacts Orchestras

In order to maintain a third party outlook on this topic, I contacted a handful of retired orchestra executives for their opinion. Unfortunately, no one wanted to go on record with a reply so I’ll have to fill in this section with a little editorializing.

The short answer is “it depends.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, outlook on this influenced by political persuasion but if you take a historic view on the topic, there aren’t enough instances where a professional orchestra was placed on the Unfair List while attempting to conduct regular concert events to draw any reasonable conclusions.

Currently, the only orchestra on the Unfair List that has concert activity planned for the 2010/11 season is the Richardson Symphony but their first concert event of the season isn’t scheduled until 2/12/2011, which means there is still time for the dispute to be resolved. Inquires to the Richardson Symphony about being on the Unfair List were not returned and at the time this article was written, the organization’s website did not list an orchestra roster and the auditions page simply states “Please contact the RSO office (XXX-XXX-XXXX) for information about possible openings and/or placement on the substitute list for the 2010-2011 season.”

Consequently, it will be interesting to see what transpires in Richardson via orchestra musicians if the dispute is unresolved.

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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16 thoughts on “The AFM International Unfair List, Defined”

  1. This is an interesting topic. I wonder how the situation in Detroit affects outside groups who are presented by the DSO. We know that Sarah Chang decided to cancel a recital at orchestra hall at the last minute, citing concerns over the work stoppage. Did the AFM play any role in her decision to cancel? What about other groups who’s members are in the AFM? Do these penalties also apply to them or do they only apply to hypothetical “scab” musicians who might try to circumvent the strike and appear onstage as a makeshift orchestra?

    • As for Sarah Chang, the AFM president did send her a personal message but I’m not aware of any official action taken by the International Executive Board. I don’t know the answer to your second question but I hope someone from AFM with the authority to reply with a definitive response is keeping an eye on this comment thread and will respond accordingly.

  2. I would argue that fining a member for taking work is a violation of Constitutional law. It is an enumerable right, affirmed by the supreme court, that all people are free to and have equal access to employment in their chosen field, and that a fine of such an exorbitant amount in relation to the value of the contract; or any such retribution for accepting employment is an intimidation by the union on that right of the person.

    Any act on the intimidation, suppression or denial of a Constitutional enumerable right is against the law. In addition, should any person show that they have lost work has been discriminated against for union membership, in a state that is not required, can file suit for discrimination and violation of their ninth amendment rights of equal access to employment.

    • I would like to preface this by saying that I am not an attorney, and these comments are strictly my own opinions and interpretations.

      Any person who wishes to join a union is responsible for researching the rules and bylaws before making that decision. When a musician joins the AFM, they agree to follow all rules and bylaws of the organization, and should avail themselves of said bylaws before they pay their initiation fees. This is backed up by federal law. Section 8 (b) of The National Labor Relations Act, which defines unfair labor practices on the part of both employers and unions, acknowledges “the right of a labor organization to prescribe its own rules with respect to the acquisition or retention of membership therein”.

      Furthermore, the Constitution is a document that attempts to delineate the specific roles and duties of the government, while outlining certain fundamental rights of its citizens. It applies to the government, not individuals or private organizations. If an officer of a private organization silences me because I am speaking out of turn, they are not violating my fundamental freedom of speech. Likewise, if an organization passes a bylaw urging its members to refrain from working for an employer in the midst of a primary labor dispute, they are not violating the rights of their members.

      Finally, as stated by Drew in this article, the fines are a moot point. AFM members are largely supportive of and sympathetic to each other. Out of mutual respect and professional courtesy, most members would never cross a picket line regardless of any penalty or fines. We do the right thing because it’s the right thing, not because there’s a punishment. We support each other because we are professionals and colleagues, not because we feel intimidated.

  3. People who join unions get to enjoy the benefits of union membership, including (generally) improved wages and working conditions—gains that have been hard-won and accomplished only through collective action. An organization only ends up on the Unfair List when it has taken egregious action that strikes at the heart of its employees’ rights, such as failing to pay wages for services rendered or retaliating against employees because of their union membership—or, in the case of Detroit, imposing intolerable modifications to the CBA. When a bargaining unit goes on strike to protest an employer’s actions, it is exercising a legal economic tool that loses its effectiveness if the employer is able to continue doing business and making money despite being deprived of its employees’ services. For that reason, a union member who crosses a picket line and provides services to an organization that is the object of a work stoppage is engaging in conduct that is directly adversarial to the interests of his or her union brothers and sisters (and, ultimately, his or her own interests)—and directly undermining the union’s economic action. It is for that reason that the law permits unions to make rules that support solidarity—and to impose consequences on members who break those rules.

  4. Sarah Chang is not an AFM member. Because orchestral members from many parts of the country sent her messages asking her not to cross the DSO’s picket lines and because she has to work with many of these members in future concert dates, she and her management probably thought it best to respect the picketing musicians’ wishes. It seems to be a matter of choice whether or not soloists, conductors and full-time chamber musicians belong to the AFM. Some do, and some do not. All have personal contracts negotiated by their managements, not by the AFM.

  5. If musicians want to strike, that is their right. If non-union musicians want to play for the Richardson Symphony, that is their right too. But when the AFM threatens graduate students and colleges, issuing warnings like “this will affect your career later,” it’s no wonder the union is viewed negatively by many musicians…and it IS viewed negatively by many musicians.

    • Hi Paul, thanks for the comment. I’ve been thinking about your points all morning but so far I don’t know if letting students know that becoming involved in a labor dispute could potentially hurt their career is a bad thing or not. Regardless whether an individual supports either side’s position in the Richardson dispute, letting students know about the political realities of their decisions while in school is actually a responsible course of action so they can make an informed decision and go into a situation with their eyes wide open.

      I wouldn’t expect a college student to be aware of or even comprehend the multitude of layers that embody a labor dispute and to let one of them walk into a situation without having this knowledge is only asking for a negative introduction into the realities of a career as an orchestra musician.

      I know it is difficult to not let feelings influence decisions on what’s appropriate action or not; but as the old adage goes, knowledge is power and students should be armed with as much information as possible.

  6. A comment and two short questions.

    It is my understanding that the Louisville Orchestra was just placed on the Unfair List.
    Is the DSO still officially on it? If so now that they have settled and gone back to work, how would that affect those musicians currently hired for long-term sub positions, like their new Percussion Section?

    george brown
    Utah Symphony

  7. Just to be clear, the quote stating that no active AFM has ever crossed the picket line and rendered services to an orchestra on that list is not accurate, I was an AFM member (Dallas local) and did perform with the RSO for 2 years (the first year being the year of failed contract negotiations). Classical music jobs are far and few in between, the AFM is not in a position any more to demand money and obedience from its members yet restrict the very few work to be had in the first place. In my personal opinion, this is why you are seeing many people who either A. leave the union or workforce all together, or B. union members performing services for these groups under the table discretely. The music industry is not exactly the most “objective” in the distribution of services or gigs, and this is an adaptation for many of the older generations to keep the little work within a small tight-nit community. I would say you should consider this while you are subsequently trying to figure out why you may have lack in support from other musicians (either former or current). In other jobs (e.g. corporate, for-profit businesses), you must adapt, and restricting labor to be had wont cut it, and this is where the non-profit groups such as music is failing its laborers.

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