Organizing: Building Power for Musicians in Los Angeles

Musicians from throughout the United States and Canada gather in solidarity at the 35th AFM Convention in Boston, 1930. (Photo: courtesy International Musician/AFM archives)

Musicians from throughout the United States and Canada gather in solidarity at the 35th AFM Convention in Boston, 1930. (Photo: courtesy International Musician/AFM archives)

by Jefferson Kemper

Organizing has always been the foundation of the AFM. The strength of this union is predicated on our ability to get working musicians to agree on core principles and to advocate together for our common benefit. Since the late 1800s when the AFM was created and when musicians around the country founded their own local chapters, it’s been the ability to organize that has provided the leverage to demand fair compensation for the value of musicians’ work.

We still benefit from the organizing efforts of the past. Much of the strength of our current agreements rests on the legacy of earlier generations of musicians. But as contracts come to term and are renegotiated; as studios proliferate; as new industries, new venues and new media thrive; pressure to lower standards won’t be stopped by the memory of bygone leaders.

First, let’s be honest. We need the courage to take a hard, critical look at the strengths and weaknesses of this organization in order to fight effectively on our members’ behalf. Local 47 is not as strong as it once was. Many of our members don’t have enough work to stay busy. It has become easier for employers to pressure musicians to work without a contract. If we do nothing, things are likely to get worse.

The way forward is not an easy one, but it’s clear what we need to do: organize musicians to fight together.

Local 47 is committed to organizing. What is organizing?

Organizing happens when musicians talk to other musicians about wages and benefits. It happens when we hold meetings to discuss our shared principles. Organizing happens when musicians call on allies in the community and in public office to back us up. And it happens when musicians ask each other hard questions like “We need people to show up to an important event, can I count on you?” All this is part of our effort to make this Local stronger. That’s why we’re dedicating resources to strengthening our organizing program. This program will look for measurable success in three areas:

Get more work under AFM contracts. Non-union performances and recording sessions are one of the biggest forces that rob musicians of bargaining power. These jobs undermine our local and national agreements, and they lower the value of musical work. Local 47 members need to report non-union productions, to encourage non-union musicians to join Local 47, and to put pressure on employers that take advantage of struggling musicians.

Improve wages, benefits, and working conditions for musicians. Working under a union contract today doesn’t guarantee fair pay tomorrow. Musicians must organize campaigns to raise the profile of Local 47 members and improve our bargaining position in negotiations so that our contracts set higher standards for wages, benefits and working conditions.

Keep work in California. The standards we set in L.A. make it possible for musicians to have good careers, but the lack of standards in the rest of the world have tempted studios to do scoring outside the U.S. We need to engage with elected officials and other unions to hold the industry accountable and keep good jobs in L.A.

As we move forward and try new ways to build strength for musicians, we will ruffle some feathers. We will ask musicians to go outside their comfort zone. Some of the actions we ask members to participate in may be painted as “cheesy,” “disruptive” or even “beneath” the stature of a professional musician. For those that are comfortable with the status quo, finding fault will come easy, but if you feel this union needs to be stronger, join us as we return to the source of our bargaining power: organizing musicians.

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