A Crisis Of Conscience Inside The AFM

The topic of equal pay for equal work as applied to substitute musician wages has been an uphill examination over the past year. We began exploring the topic in the wake of the Minnesota Orchestra settlement that ended their season-killing lockout after learning the agreement failed to maintain wage parity for substitute musicians and even when the option of achieving parity through direct action was available, the musicians and their Local opted against enacting those measures.

Adaptistration People 137Throughout the course of these events, the Minnesota Orchestra musician representatives, representatives from the patron support organization Save Our Symphony Minnesota (SOSMN), the Twin Cities Musicians Union – Local 30-73 AFM, and even the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians Chairperson all declined to discuss the topic and related issues. Consequently, it was time to go right to the top representative at the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), the union that represents the majority of professional orchestra musicians.

That person is AFM president Ray Hair and I contacted him requesting an interview to learn about his thoughts on what exactly constitutes equal pay for equal work as well as the duty of fair representation via regular orchestra musician members representing their substitute colleagues.

Numerous email and phone messages were not returned.

At the same time, the AFM published a video from Hair introducing an AFM education video series expressly for professional orchestra musicians where he clearly presents one of the union’s fundamental principles.

“Protecting musicians’ rights and conditions of employment is at the core of the AFMs mission. It strengthens our union when members understand how to protect their interests and those of their colleagues.” ~ Ray Hair

Within the series of videos, there are no direct references or examinations of equal pay for equal work as applied to substitute parity and only a few instances referencing substitute musicians within the duties of fair representation. Currently, the bulk of educational content focuses on master agreement enforcement, bargaining, and a two part series on organizing.

Consequently, and from the perspective of leadership and member education, the AFM provides no firm position on the principle of substitute parity and little to no educational resources for orchestra musicians representing the interests of those substitutes.

Mixed Messages

To date, the only individual willing to discuss this topic was Robert Levine, the current president of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the AFM and Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and although it was an excellent conversation, Levine was functioning in an un-official capacity and not representing the AFM or any position other than his own. Levine has also published a pair of articles on the topic at his Polyphonic.org blog and one theme that appears there (and reiterated during our moderated discussion) is a reticence against sending a negative message to the employer that musicians might be willing to subsidize what they consider a bad decision.

“The Local has legitimate needs for its dues income, which shouldn’t include subsidizing a management’s decision to pay subs less than is affordable or fair. The union should not be a piggy bank to cover bad management choices any more than should the musicians.” ~ Robert Levine

There is undoubtedly merit in that position but its value begins to dissolve when applied to a fundamental principle such as equal work for equal pay.

In the case of the Minnesota Orchestra, this concern over sending a potential message that the employer can attempt to leverage financial concessions for perceived governance failures misses the very real message that if you push hard enough against the boundaries of self-interest vs. the principle of equal pay for equal work, salaried musicians will capitulate to substitute pay disparity.

It might take turning the screws so hard that they break and the musicians will likely fight tooth and nail the entire time while simultaneously laying blame at the feet of their employer but once the deal is done, they’ll subsequently justify the inequity if needed.

From there, the employer is free to explore just how far these tiered principles extend not to mention retaining a bargaining chip that has both economic and ideological value in the sense that an employer can routinely test the musician employee’s collective threshold for self-interest vs. fundamental principles of labor rights.

Creating Their Own Demons

Another message musicians should be concerned about whenever adopting substitute pay disparities is one sent to a generation of incoming orchestra musicians. As we’ve previously
examined, substitute musicians and salaried orchestra musicians both pay equal membership and work dues into their union but the former are not provided the same degree of representation and must rely on the latter to represent and protect their interests in good faith.

Every time a group of orchestra musicians consents to a substitute pay disparity, it sends a message that union membership is no guarantee of equal representation. Moreover, when the disparity is subsequently justified by the same individuals, and to a lesser degree when those in positions of leadership decline discussing the issue, it creates future colleagues who are not only risk averse but increasingly willing to accept unnecessarily unreasonable employment terms served up under the pretense of “better this than nothing.”

Simply put, the practice of substitute disparity only germinates a generation of docile musician employees that reactionary employers can routinely manipulate.

Consequently, an environment of self-fulfilling prophecy begins to emerge where salaried musicians blaming the substitute wage disparity on undue pressures from bad and/or abusive managers are only making it that much easier for those types of executive leaders to thrive inside the field.

Trickle-Down Economics, AFM Style

Not long after the article on this topic from 2/16/2015, a reader who works as a freelance musician sent a direct email with some genuinely intriguing perspectives. His identity is protected via anonymity due to a reasonable risk of becoming the target of retribution for offering up his observations. His remarks are published here with his permission.

Hi Drew, I just wanted to send a note to thank you for covering the equal pay issue…I believe that the best thing for the majority of working musicians is for complete solidarity among all of us (as impractical as that may be).

When you first started covering the Minnesota sub pay situation, I have to admit I was puzzled by your interest in the issue, beyond the fact that you are a good guy looking out for people like me.  However, as I learn about the context I feel more and more that this is a big deal in terms of the failure of our union to attempt to represent all of its members.  Your last post on the subject [link], in particular the link to the NLRB “right to fair representation” rule, really opened my eyes to the idea that the union might not even be fulfilling its legal obligations in this regard.  I have since been going back through your history of the negotiation process [link], followed by some of the outside reading on the history of ICSOM [link] and the union.  Fascinating.

It is so strange for me to realize how thoroughly “on the outside” I am as a freelancer not working under a CBA.  The funny thing is, within the group “classical players who are union members”, I am almost positive that there are more like me (not full time CBA represented) than there are like them (full time CBA represented).  Not that I think that should matter- once again, I think we all have to stick together to make things work for professional musicians.

As a side note on the subject of the fair treatment of subs by CBA musicians: during the time that the Minnesota and Atlanta orchestras were both under work stoppages, players from both orchestras were taking work here in the Northeast (and no doubt elsewhere), affecting freelancers well beyond the group that are now affected by their new contract at home.  But of course you know that.

Thanks again for shining some daylight on all of this.

The freelance musician’s observations create an intriguing juxtaposition against some of the more common rationalization for enacting substitute pay disparities. Robert Levine included one of the more common perspectives in his post on the issue from 1/9/2015.

Of course it’s not fair that [the Minnesota Orchestra substitute musicians are] now making less per service than are the full-time musicians. But it’s likely still the best-paying freelance gig, for the most musicians, than anything else between Chicago and the West Coast. Given the choice between getting 90% of the full-time per-service pay now and a 17th, and 18th, and 19th, and 20th, and who knows how many more-th, month of no work from the Minnesota Orchestra, it’s not obvious why the subs who depend on that work would have chosen the second option.

In this illustration, the full time musicians Robert identifies are the salaried musicians that benefit from self-determination via direct representation and are charged with the responsibility of representing their substitute colleagues [details]. The rationale in Robert’s example hinges on a degree of confidence that substitute musicians indirectly benefit most when an orchestra’s resources are prioritized via the salaried musicians. Consequently, even in situations where the salaried musicians may not prefer the pay disparity, they will accept it under the guise of ultimately benefiting their substitute colleagues.

If this sounds familiar, that’s because it shares the same principles as trickle-down economics, colloquially known as Reaganomics.

Some might call it ironic that the “largest [union] in the world representing the interests of professional musicians” embraces an economic ideal that has more in common with Reaganomics than the Labor Rights principles of equal pay for equal work.

Closing Thoughts

The substitute pay disparity in Minnesota is only one of a string of such disparities but what made this situation unique is it became the first where the salaried musicians consciously opted against a plan to rectify the inequality even if that meant acting on their own accord. When compared alongside the nature of the AFM’s educational material, reticence among its chief representatives to discuss the issue equal pay for equal work in a public forum, and the uptick in the ratio of orchestra musicians accepting substitute pay disparity terms, irony abounds.

In the end, the AFM and the orchestra field in general share a very similar problem in that both have struggled over the past decade coming to terms with the need to justify their value; not only to their respective core constituents, but the public at large. Continued failure to do so only invites the potential for increased irrelevance and disenfranchising future generations.

Should AFM president Ray Hair, ICSOM chair Bruce Ridge, Twin Cities Musicians Union – Local 30-73 AFM president Brad C. Eggen, or any representative of the Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra committee decide to discuss the issues of equal pay for equal work, we’ll be certain to publish the results from that conversation.

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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22 thoughts on “A Crisis Of Conscience Inside The AFM

  1. Interestingly, when the AFM negotiates electronic media agreements for orchestra musicians, equal pay for equal work is the rule.

  2. Hi Drew, You may be interested to know that at the Utah Symphony not only are subs and extras paid at the same rate as “seated” members, but if a sub plays a nine service week, she will make more than a salaried member. This is because the per-service rate is calculated at 1/8th of weekly scale. What do you think about this? Best regards, Steve Proser

  3. That is genuinely terrific Stephen but it seems that Utah is in a rapidly growing minority. I’m curious to know if you think the AFM can reverse that trend and if so, how.

    I’m also curious to know more about the history of how that term has evolved at your orchestra.

  4. Seated? In our CBA a seated musician is defined as a regular member of the orchestra. One who has won his/her seat through the audition process. A seated member can be tenured or probationary.

    So you don’t think their are equal pay for equal work issues implicated by paying a sub or extra more for a week’s work more than a regular member?

  5. Drew, just to clarify, when you speak of the musicians (and management, and the union, and icsom) consciously opting against a plan to rectify the inequality, you are referring to the plan you outlined in your previous article , in which the contracted players would voluntarily contribute to a fund that would go toward rectifying the pay disparity. Is that correct?

  6. I think we’re talking past one another here Stephen; to clarify, I’m asking about the history behind how your ensemble arrived at the term you described vis-a-vis substitute wages; how long has it existing, if it came into being during the last 40 years, what were the issues faced, how did contractual language in that term evolve, has your employer attempted to institute a disparity, etc.

    Moreover, I think readers would appreciate hearing from you directly whether or not you think this term within your master agreement has any impact on this issue within the AFM. If so, what?

  7. Drew, to the best of my knowledge, subs and extras have been paid at a rate equal to 1/8 of the weekly salary, per service, way before the 23 years ago that I arrived here. I am not aware of either management or musicians having ever brought this issue to the table. I doubt that other orchestras are aware of our sub/extra contract language, so I suppose that we have had no impact on this issue within the AFM. I continue to support equal pay for equal work.

    But respectfully, you still haven’t answered my question! is it fair that extras/subs make in excess of my salary for performing a nine service week?

  8. I think you’ve brought up an excellent point vis-a-vis your observation about whether or not other orchestral musicians are even aware of your group’s contract language. It touches on some of the questions I sent to ICSOM chair Bruce Ridge asking about whether or not they examine or discuss issues of substitute parity at their conferences and/or via member communication channels (details).

    And thanks for the clarification on your question as that was going to be my next follow-up. In short; yes, I do think the scenario you’ve described is not only fair but is the natural result of the inherent nature of salaried vs. per-service employment. If anything, this is one of those topics that deserves a stand-alone “the more you know” style post for readers unaware of what we’re talking about.

  9. This is part of the inherent problem of trying to carve a per service concept out of a salary situation. Our work weeks have an “average” of 8 services per week. Many weeks will have fewer than 8. Some will have 9, the maximum allowable. Maybe the right thing to do would be to pay subs and extras a week’s salary regardless of the number of services played. This would be pretty expensive, of course.

  10. “…salaried musicians will capitulate to substitute pay disparity.”
    Don’t think for a millisecond those same salaried musicians wouldn’t turn on a substitute musician à la Stasi informant.

    I can’t believe people find this sort of information surprising. We’re talking about unions, people — one of the last vestiges of free-world communism. If there’s a buck to be made, they’ll wait until you reach for it and take your whole wad. Art has no place in music these days.

  11. Thanks for offering up your observation but the universal nature of the comment denies the very real nature of self-determination in the orchestral bargaining environment. Although the minority, there certainly are players associations where the musicians have fought and sacrificed to achieve parity; to that end, Mr. Proser just provided an example via his ensemble (Utah Symphony), to which, I am very grateful. But more to your point, I don’t know if readers find the topic and related discussions surprising inasmuch as it is an element many outside of the inner workings are unaware of. I would go so far as to say even a sizable ratio of professional orchestra musicians haven’t given the issue much thought outside the confines of their respective ensemble(s).

    This is one of the reasons why examining the issue is so useful. Ideally, musicians should be examining this issue with the goal of something other than letting each group decide for themselves and just assume that things will work out for the best.

  12. I agree, using the average per service count in the post-economic downturn environment is increasingly problematic thanks to the nature of average service counts being far less stable. I’ve worked on this issue over the years from both the employer and employee work agreement perspective and I can say that for groups comprised entirely of salaried musicians, this method is one that I would describe as the best bad option available where no good options exist. In the end, having a reliable per-service figure based solely on wages is a real necessity and each group would be wise to evaluate those formulas on a regular basis in order to make sure the method currently employed is one that produces desired results.

    I genuinely appreciate your willingness to discuss these issues Stephen and I hope it inspires more of your colleagues to do the same.

  13. Drew, regarding the comment of “Steve Foster”: he is trolling us. Since you run moderated comments, I would encourage you to not approve such comments for posting. Your posts are serious and thoughtful. Trolls aim to destroy meaningful conversation. People who are interested in engaging with ideas will cease to visit your site if it becomes overrun with trolls. Thanks!

  14. Hi Stephen, many thanks for the insight and rest assured, I am well aware of when a reader is trolling. At the same time, I would purport that there is genuine value in allowing a troll to do his/her thing if it means taking a negative stereotype and using it in a way to get others who may associate with those ideas, even in a knee jerk fashion, to see a different perspective.

    I’ve done this for a considerable amount of time and can say with all confidence that a measured response with a goal that reaches far beyond typical troll objectives and directed to readers outside of those who are well entrenched in any ideology is far more valuable than shutting the comment down. And yes, every blue moon it actually does some good with the respective troll.

    Moreover, if anyone who disagrees with the sentiments expressed by our troll (and they would be wise to do so) would decide to abandon a forum of discussion and examination because they favor an opposite extreme of preaching to a choir, then they are welcome to do so. In fact, I would be happy to point them toward outlets that may be better suited to their tastes. In the end, those are every bit as partisan and one dimensional and will leave readers empty and blind to the broader realities that exist.

    In the end, extremist views like those in the comment didn’t violate anything from the Adaptistration’s comment policy and frankly, there are far too many voices and leaders within orchestral governance that hold similar views to ignore them under the guise of trolling.

    Consequently, learning how to deal with and use them as a pivot point for turning the conversation toward a more productive objective will do far more good from the long tail perspective.

  15. To my mind, this is one of the real reasons the AFM needs to get ahead of this issue: It gives more ammunition to anti-union sentiment (among musicians), dividing their ranks unnecessarily.

  16. So, in all this time, you have gotten no response from any of the groups involved regarding your offer to donate your services to the setup of a mitigation fund? Not even a “thanks but no thanks,” from the players, or the union (local or national), or icsom?

  17. For the sake of clarity, ICSOM was never involved in the disparity mitigation fund idea, just the MOMA committee and their Local. I did have a series of conversations with individual musicians interested in implementing the idea but there were never any official replies or acknowledgement (other than receipt of email messages) from the committee nor the Local.

  18. Hi Drew,
    I am writing in with a ‘freelance’ perspective on this. I have been fortunate enough to do some substantial freelance work with a major west coast orchestra over the past several years. I would argue that the AFM is actually seriously biased against freelancers. While I am fortunate that I have been paid at the standard salaried ‘per-service’ rate for my work with this orchestra, it saddens me to see so many colleagues in other cities fighting a losing battle, and I know there was pressure to reduce sub pay in the last negotiation.

    Freelance work is by nature unstable, unpredictable, unreliable and can be both incredibly rewarding and incredibly frustrating. As the cost of living increases in major cities around the country, it is easy to see a situation where freelance musicians are simply unable to afford to continue their work if not paid fairly. Don’t forget the added costs of instrument insurance, health insurance, etc etc that the salaries musicians are provided in their contracts.

    It is also worth noting that as a freelance musician who performs with many orchestras in a given region (and around the country), I am currently paying annual AFM dues to four different locals! This is in addition to work dues deducted from my paycheck. It is easy to see how from this perspective the union is not upholding its promise of better outcomes for ALL members with solidarity. Not to mention the questionable integrity of the AFM pension fund…

    I sincerely hope that contracted members of full-time orchestras are able to consider these issues during negotiations, and remember that if they want to have highly qualified and talented subs available (enabling them to take sick leave or pursue other artistic opportunities) they should support their colleagues …

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