musings of a professional bassoonist

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Musician labor unions: the pros and the cons


Labor unions formed in the 19th century as a necessary and appropriate response to horrible working conditions which included long hours, low pay, dangerous conditions and child labor.  The 40-hour work week which most American workers now take for granted is a hard-won example of union efforts.   Many types of workers belong to unions: teachers, firefighters, police, miners, manufacturing and construction workers, factory workers, government employees, technicians, doctors, and, of course, musicians.

Benefits of union membership:
Union members negotiate as a group with their employer (collective bargaining), which gives the workers much more power than if they were to negotiate individually.  The wages of union employees are approximately 27 percent higher than wages of non-union workers.  92% of union workers are offered job-related health coverage, versus 68% for non-union employees. Guaranteed pensions are another benefit common among union workers.

Through their collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) and the grievance and arbitration processes, unions protect their employees from unjust dismissal. Union employees can't be fired without “just cause,” unlike many non-union employees who can be fired at any time for nearly any reason.

Collectively bargained wages, job security, full time employment status, pension, health insurance, sick leave, paid vacation, personal leave, overtime pay, along with strict limits on length, timing and number of services per week are examples of the benefits we musicians have reaped from our union affiliation.

Yet nationwide, union membership has taken a nosedive during recent decades, falling from 33% union membership of the workforce in 1945 to 11.9% union affiliation in 2010.

Why??

Consider this:
1.  Is it possible that today's unions sometimes push wages to an unreasonable or unsustainable level?  If unrealistic wages force the company (or orchestra!) out of business, then what good were the union-negotiated wages?

2. Is it possible that unions sometimes pit employees against employers in a way which is counterproductive, creating an "us versus them" mentality, breeding distrust on both sides?  

3. Is it possible that one of the union's greatest sources of power, the strike, actually has the ability to harm the very union members it seeks to protect?  The cost to employees of a prolonged labor strike can be devastating, more so than the originally offered wages and working conditions, had they been accepted!  Furthermore, strikes tend to alienate the customers (or the public in the case of orchestras) who may come to perceive the strikers as greedy and self-serving.

4.  Is it possible that the traditional function of labor unions is outdated?  Could it benefit from tweaking?
As previously stated, a union can negotiate a better collective contract than each worker could negotiate individually.  But. ..... because the union negotiates collectively, the same contract covers each worker equally, regardless of his or her productivity or effort.  Only seniority is rewarded.
In the manufacturing economy of the 1930s, this system worked reasonably well. An employee's unique talents, skills and level of dedication made little difference on the assembly line, after all.
But now those jobs are automated.
In the current job market, who wants to work for a company that treats all workers exactly the same, no matter how hard they work?  Who wants to work for a company that promotes and rewards employees only on the basis of seniority, and not merit?  Who wants to work for an employer who ignores individual efforts?  Yet that's what labor unions offer employees today.
Overseas outsourcing has been partially driven by the high costs of union partnership. Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman strongly believed that unions produced higher wages for its members at the expense of fewer jobs, and that those higher wages would inevitably sink to the level of non-union jobs anyway.  Friedman, obviously no fan of unions, extolled the virtues of a free market economic system.
Many members of the current workforce are teens, parents and already-employed workers who are seeking part-time supplemental work.  They have no interest in unions.  Currently, younger workers in general tend to prefer independence over group affiliation.
5.  Is it really true that only union workers are fairly treated by the employer ?  In fact, many non-union employers offer such incentives and benefits as stock options, Christmas bonuses, every type of insurance from vision to dental to mental to life, free health club memberships, weight-loss rewards, automatic annual wage increases, several weeks of paid vacation, annual safety bonuses for being accident-free, and paid personal days.  Why would the employees of such a company need a union?  Job security may be the obvious answer, but is union protection of all workers, including those who are minimally productive, justifiable in today's job market?  Is it fair?

What about musicians' unions?

From my perspective as a Columbus Symphony musician I have seen what I consider to be a healthy and flexible response on the part of the musicians' local branch of the American Federation of Musicians.  In the past, our local union militantly opposed symphony management in defense of the rights of the musicians.  For example, in 1986, the union led the Columbus musicians in a six-month strike over fairness of wages and job security.  The musicians prevailed, which was possible during the socioeconomic environment of the 80s in Columbus. 

More recently, in 2008, the union and the musicians again defied management over proposed wage cuts, and the result was a six-month work stoppage.  Luckily for us, we ended up settling just days before the economy tanked.  Had we waited any longer, the orchestra could not have withstood the economic downturn.  The deal we ended up with, however, was a lesser one than what we had rejected six months earlier. 

Last season, with a new executive director on board, our economic situation revealed itself to be far more grave than had been previously estimated.  The executive director and board chair consulted with the local union president (who also happens to be a Columbus Symphony bassoonist) and the orchestra players' committee, explaining the unforeseen yet critical financial problem.

This time, our local union wisely understood the changed environment, along with the precarious and desperately needed community support for the orchestra.  The musicians voted to accept a variance to our collective bargaining agreements (CBA) which lowered our salaries fairly dramatically.  Our management had presented the musicians with what the majority of us considered to be a reasonable plan to restructure and save the orchestra.  Part of the plan involved a management partnership with the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts (CAPA) - an alliance which is proving to be extremely beneficial to the symphony.

Had our local union instead decided to fight against our management, the orchestra would have suffered irreparable damage.  Nearly every professional orchestra in the U.S. is union-affiliated.  Recently, quite a few orchestras have encountered financial situations similar to ours.  Each union branch must assess local circumstances to choose its plan of action and its recommendations to its players.

Unions have served us well over the years, no doubt.  However, it seems to me that the time has come to reassess the purpose of the union.  I am eternally grateful that the Columbus local union was able to flex, and to make such a wise, insightful, informed and realistic choice - the choice to collaborate with rather than to defy our management.  As a result, our orchestra, with our restructured management and  inspiring new music director Jean-Marie Zeitouni, is now on the right track, sustainable and stable, growing back to its former stature and beyond.

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5 comments:

David Erato said...

Great post. I'm from Wisconsin and have many teacher friends, and I'm sure you know many people going through similar pains in Ohio.

I'm in the musician's union, but really just for the cell phone discount. I joined because I played a gig that required it, but only had 2 union gigs total, and not one since 2007. Though I may have one coming next month, I believe.

Being in a musician's union is a great idea, but it's not like they work to get you work, they are just happy I pay my dues. And for playing the local club scene, forget it. Club gig wages have stayed at $50/night for the last 20 years. Same with community theater.

And is it just me, or does it seem unions basically only bargin down now? You never hear stories of unions getting better wages and benefits.

B.S. said...

David, it's interesting that you'd mention the cell phone discount offered to musicians' union members. My experience is that few musicians know about or take advantage of that!

I know it seems as though unions have been bargaining down lately. It's a tough time for arts organizations, and unions are limited in what they can do about that.

Thnaks for your comment.

Betsy

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Liz said...

Great blog. I learned a lot about labor unions, how they have served their members and changed over the past 50 years. Of course they are beneficial because they can negotiate better wages and employment conditions for a group of employees, and union membership has historically offered job security. It was interesting to read that over the last 65 years union membership has dropped from 33% to 11.9%. (Employers today offer incentives like stock options, bonuses and paid vacations to non-union workers.) The only thing they can’t offer is job security. But do you think that that is unnecessary in the case of musicians?
I was thinking that many musicians live off private, one-time gigs anyway and are used to job ‘insecurity.’ Only a small percentage of musicians end up working for an orchestra - the only time a union can really push their weight around in the music industry. Unions do little to raise wages for private gigs and they don’t have enough of an association or determination to negotiate record contracts.
Many members of the current ranks of the unemployed are teens, parents and workers who are seeking part-time supplemental work.  They wouldn’t be interested in unions, and musicians might feel the same.
You said in your post that unions produce higher wages for members at the expense of fewer jobs. You also suggest that those higher wages would inevitably sink to the level of non-union jobs anyway. I am not sure what the role of unions is in today’s workplace. They may become something of the past unless they overhaul the role they perform in the current global marketplace.
I am interested in electronic music, composition and DJing so the topic of musicians unions is interesting. Most gigs that DJs get are one-time events unless a nightclub contracts them. Not sure what kind of a career is possible.
Thanks for your info.

Liam Menten-Weil said...

Great blog. I learned a lot about labor unions, how they have served their members and changed over the past 50 years. Of course they are beneficial because they can negotiate better wages and employment conditions for a group of employees, and union membership has historically offered job security. It was interesting to read that over the last 65 years union membership has dropped from 33% to 11.9%. (Employers today offer incentives like stock options, bonuses and paid vacations to non-union workers.) The only thing they can’t offer is job security. But do you think that that is unnecessary in the case of musicians?
I was thinking that many musicians live off private, one-time gigs anyway and are used to job ‘insecurity.’ Only a small percentage of musicians end up working for an orchestra - the only time a union can really push their weight around in the music industry. Unions do little to raise wages for private gigs and they don’t have enough of an association or determination to negotiate record contracts.
Many members of the current ranks of the unemployed are teens, parents and workers who are seeking part-time supplemental work.  They wouldn’t be interested in unions, and musicians might feel the same.
You said in your post that unions produce higher wages for members at the expense of fewer jobs. You also suggest that those higher wages would inevitably sink to the level of non-union jobs anyway. I am not sure what the role of unions is in today’s workplace. They may become something of the past unless they overhaul the role they perform in the current global marketplace.
I am interested in electronic music, composition and DJing so the topic of musicians unions is interesting. Most gigs that DJs get are one-time events unless a nightclub contracts them. Not sure what kind of a career is possible.
Thanks for your info.