One of the more frequent reactions I get when speaking with supporters or interested bystanders goes something like this: “Yes, but why do the musicians need to be in a *union*?”
I am not sure where this distaste for the idea of unionized musicians comes from. Perhaps there is some classism involved—what do a group of people who perform much of their work in white tie and tails or formal dresses have in common with the trades more commonly thought of as union bastions? Perhaps people’s political biases are shaping their perceptions? Or maybe people just hear the word “union” and think “Jimmy Hoffa.”
A union is, in simplest terms, made up of workers with a common interest in promoting their
welfare and protecting their rights at work. Musicians are not immune to the need to protect their rights at work. Here are some things that could and did happen in professional orchestras before the musicians were protected by the formation of the AFM: Conductors, with nearly absolute power, could hire their friends without a competitive audition. They could fire a musician for little or no cause, such as sneezing, or simply because the musician held a chair that the conductor wanted to give to a protégé. They could and did refuse to hire women or people of color. Rehearsals could go on for however long the conductor wanted to hold the musicians.
The American Federation of Musicians was created by musicians who banded together to say, collectively, “You cannot do that. You cannot hire an ensemble and refuse to pay at the end of the evening, or claim that the musicians are being paid in “exposure.” You cannot capriciously hire or fire a musician without a fair due process. You cannot make a shambles of people’s schedules and personal lives by insisting that a rehearsal go on past its allotted time. You cannot put people’s health or instrument safety at risk by requiring performance in extreme heat or cold. You cannot refuse to hire someone due to gender, ethnicity, or age. You must treat the musicians you hire with respect and integrity.”
The musicians in virtually every full-time professional orchestra in North America are
represented by the American Federation of Musicians (there is one exception, Seattle, which is represented by a different union), and very nearly all musicians in those orchestras are individual members of the AFM, even in right-to-work states. Why? Because while individually we cannot withstand an employer making unfair or damaging decisions, together we can.
A union contract, or “collective bargaining agreement,” also protects the employer. Our CBA
outlines musicians’ responsibilities as well as those of the Symphony Society, and allows for a fair due process when it is necessary to discipline a musician or even (thankfully very rarely) dismiss a musician either for lack of artistic proficiency or for cause.
The AFM is not some faceless entity that wields dictatorial power from far-off New York City.
The AFM *is* the musicians. We the musicians right here in San Antonio collectively determine our goals, and the AFM supports us in our effort to achieve them. We aren’t trying to undermine the Symphony Society; we are trying to save it. The Symphony Society’s current intent to downsize the orchestra and take away jobs from people who rightfully and fairly won those jobs through an arduous and expensive process will only result in the annihilation of the orchestra.
We musicians will not be complicit in our own destruction.
-Mary Ellen Goree
Orchestra Committee Chair
Principal Violin II