Stronger Together: Why it Pays to Work Union

As an AFM member, you shape your future through participation in the decision-making process at local and national levels. When you work under AFM contracts, employers make contributions toward your retirement fund. When you meet eligible earnings thresholds, you and your dependents have access to health and life insurance.

Bigger Paychecks

In nearly every occupational category, workers who are not members of unions have smaller paychecks than union members. By comparing the wages of workers within occupational groups, on average, union workers’ wages are 27% higher than their non-union counterparts. The cost of not being able to bargain collectively is clear:

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Union Members – 2015, Table 4. Median weekly earnings of full-time wage and salary workers by union affiliation, occupation and industry, 2014-2015 annual averages.

This trend also holds true with musicians:

Set and Protected Scale Rates

The American Federation of Musicians determines wage scales that provide guidance on the minimum payments paid to musicians, be it a live performance or recording session. When working a union job, not only does this establish a fair pay scale and pension payment, in the case of sound recordings if the music is used in another medium — such as film, television, or a commercial — having a “paper trail” ensures that musicians receive a new-use payment. If there is ever a dispute about payment, the union will have the musician’s back and work to ensure that she or he is paid.

Union jobs also offer more than wages. For example, say a musician performs a non-union date for a low-budget film. They may receive $50 per hour for a three-hour session, for a total paycheck of $150. But this pay does not include any pension, Social Security, or health and welfare contributions, and the musician is not entitled to any residuals that would have applied if this were a union date. Conversely, on a comparable union session under the low budget provisions of the AFM Motion Picture Agreement, a side-musician could currently expect to earn minimum scale of $68.85 per hour with a three-hour call for a total of $206.54, in addition to receiving employer-paid benefits of $48.54 (based on a 12-hour day) for health and welfare, and $24.77 toward pension. Most of us aren’t into the habit of tucking money away for our retirement, and when that day comes it becomes clear just how much these contributions add up over the years.

Better Benefits & Protection

Union members earn better benefits than workers who aren’t union members. Unionized workers are 60% more likely to have employer-provided pensions. More than 79% of union workers have jobs that provide health insurance benefits, but less than half of non-union workers do. Unions help employers create a more stable, productive workforce—where workers have a say in improving their jobs.

Unions help bring workers out of poverty and into the middle class. In fact, in states where workers don’t have union rights, workers’ incomes are lower. Union workers are more likely to receive employer-provided health insurance, a guaranteed pension plan, and paid sick leave.

Source: U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, National Compensation Survey: Employee Benefits in the United States, March 2015

The U.S. Department of Labor reports that 86% of workers in unions participate in pension plans versus 48% of non-union workers; additionally, 76% of union workers have guaranteed pensions, compared with just 16% of non-union workers. Roughly 83% of workers in unions have paid sick leave compared with 62% of non-union workers:

Source: U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, National Compensation Survey: Employee Benefits in the United States, March 2014

Additional Revenue Streams

Unions are a conduit for a handful of specific revenue streams, such as digital performing royalties. When recordings are webcast or played on services like Pandora or Sirius XM, the featured performer, the sound recording copyright owner and the background musicians each accrue a digital performance royalty. This money is collected and distributed by SoundExchange, with 45% going to the featured artist, 50% going to the sound recording copyright owner, and 5% going to background players and singers through the AFM & SAG-AFTRA Intellectual Property Rights Distribution Fund. The AFM also collects and distributes residual payments from movie and TV producers to film and television musicians through the Film Musicians Secondary Markets Fund. And, for sound recordings made under the Sound Recording Labor Agreement, the AFM manages the distribution of sales revenue to all the musicians who participated in the session via the Sound Recording Special Payments Fund.

Job Security

Non-union workers are typically hired “at will,” meaning they can be fired for no reason. (There are federally mandated exceptions — employers can’t terminate a worker for discriminatory reasons such as race, religion, sex, age, etc., nor can they fire an at-will employee for being a whistleblower or attempting to unionize.) Union workers, on the other hand, can only be terminated for “just cause,” and the misconduct must be serious enough to merit such action. Before an employee may be fired, he or she can go through a grievance procedure through the union and, if necessary, arbitration. If anything goes wrong on the job, the union’s team of experts has your back.

Networking Tools

Union membership gives musicians access to networks, connections to peers, and a sense of musical identity. Within the AFM are Player Conferences that focus on specific areas of music work. Membership in these organizations creates cohesion in a very big music community, and gives musicians working in specific genres access to networks, resources, grants, and possibly new sources of income.

Strength in Numbers

Unionized workers have more power as a cohesive group than by acting individually. The AFM negotiates contracts with minimum rates, residuals, pension, health and retirement contributions, and safe on-set working conditions. Union membership leads to leverage in negotiations, or representation in collective bargaining for rates and salaries. In fact, unions have a significant impact on how — and how much — musicians are paid, even for those who are not card-carrying members. The AFM lobbies on issues that impact your life, such as artists’ rights, digital performance rights, runaway production, job outsourcing and more.

Exclusive Member Perks

With an AFM card, musicians receive exclusive deals and discounts through the AFL-CIO Union Plus benefits program. With Union Plus benefits, your union membership pays at work and at home. By using the collective buying power of more than 13 million union members, the AFL-CIO is able to offer valuable, discounted products and services exclusively to union workers. Quality programs and services promote better lifestyles for working families – including scholarships, travel discounts, auto insurance, financial services, legal service, everyday savings, hardship assistance and much more. Details about the program and a full list of benefits and services can be found at