What We Bargain For

by Chris Durham, AF of M Symphonic Services Division

The labor movement is in a state of constant growth and change. In the 1800s, any concerted action by workers was indictable as a criminal conspiracy. State and Federal Courts were in conflict on how to resolve the issues raised by the labor movement. Injunctions were sought to halt strikes and to prevent workers from carrying out activities to promote their general welfare. At the turn of the century, the Federal government realized the strength and determination of the labor movement, especially in the railroad industry. Legislation was enacted which benefited those workers and created a foundation for all of organized labor. In 1935, Congress enacted the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), sometimes referred to as the Wagner Act. The passage of the Act gave working-class people enormous new power and control over their livelihood.

The biggest victory within the passage of the NLRA was Section 7 which assigns to workers: "...the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection." The importance of this lawful right is quite often taken for granted and/or not fully understood.

The NLRA provides employees the ability to balance the power in the relationship with their employers. While many musicians may prefer to view themselves as "artists" as opposed to "workers," we must understand the reality of our workplace and the power relationships that exist. In addition to the talent and hard work required to achieve and maintain the level of a professional musician, we must also be involved in and aware of the business of music, especially as it affects our workplace. We are, after all, employees of an organization in a highly competitive industry. We have heard (and witnessed) the stories of tyrannical music directors whose styles of leadership included intimidating musicians in order to exert control. Capricious and arbitrary decisions challenge musicians' security and careers. These types of actions were, and continue to be, counteracted by establishing safeguards in the collective bargaining agreement achieved through collective action.

To look at true gains, one must look at the industry as a whole. During the 1964-65 season, only three orchestras--Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia Philidelphiahad 52-week seasons. New York was the only orchestra whose entire membership was employed for 52 weeks. Chicago and Philadelphia had two tiers with lesser weeks (50 and 47). Today, 20 orchestras have 52- week seasons.

During the 196Os, the National Symphony established the right to appeal to a Peer Review Committee, which could overturn the desire ofa music director to discharge a musician for musical reasons, when the committee believed the discharge to be motivated by reasons other than musical ones. Today, this procedure is standard in many orchestras. Benefits such as health insurance and pension are standard in most agreements. T'hese gains were made possible by collective action.

The bargaining process requires significant time and knowledge of the committee elected by the bargaining unit. The committee polls members of the bargaining unit to develop an understanding of the members' needs. The organization's finances are analyzed, peer orchestras' conditions are researched, and proposals are developed. Other related and important tasks require establishing and maintaining relationships with other labor unions, networking with arts advocates and supporters, and developing relationships with delegates to ICSOM and ROPA. Hours of work are spent before a proposal is ever presented to the employer.

Once proposals are presented, the parties meet and confer on the issues. The committee agonizes over which agreements can be made and which agreements are not possible. The goal is to resolve as many problems as possible, increase the wellbeing of the membership, and elevate the stature of the institution. Once the "best agreement" is reached, the union must present the tentative agreement to the unit for ratification. In some cases, this can be as tough as any other aspect of the process. The committee, if not previously aware, will soon realize that the agreement will nor be acceptable to everyone, regardless of positive gains. it is important to know that not all problems can be easily solved, or even fully resolved at times. An agreement is a "living" document that continuously develops.

Despite the complexity of the process, its effectiveness has proven itself again and again. While, politically, there are continuous battles and litigation between employers' associations and the labor movement, American workers still enjoy the ability to balance the power relarionship in their workplace, it is of great importance that all employees understand their lawful rights and maintain their rights.

This article appeared in the July 2000 issue of the International Musician under the title "Union + Collective Bargaining = Results". Reprinted here with permission.

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