The Musician's Union: A Contrarian Point of View–Sort of

Here’s a blog posted on March 15, 2011 by Columbus Symphony bassoonist, Betsy Sturdevant on her blog.  In it she makes some interesting observations about unions in general, and the Musician’s Union in particular.  Good food for thought.  What do you think?

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.


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.

About the author

Ramon Ricker

Leave a Reply