In the last issue of Senza Sordino, Doug Fisher asked whether we should have national agreements covering electronic media. While he clearly meant the question to be rhetorical, I would like to suggest that the right answer might be “no.”
Collective bargaining agreements set minimum rates of pay (and, in almost all industries but ours, maximum rates as well) in order that employers can neither take advantage of employees by pitting them against each other in the infamous “race to the bottom” nor bribe them to be good pro-management flunkies by paying them more than their colleagues.
AFM national media agreements are predicated on the notion that, in the absence of national rates, media companies will invariably look for musicians who will do the work for less. And indeed they do; that’s why film work is moving to London, Prague, Sydney, Seattle, and Toronto, where AFM agreements don’t apply and musicians will work for less.
But the idea of a “race to the bottom” assumes that the work is moveable; that a film company, for example, can pick up its marbles and hire a bunch of musicians in Seattle without anyone but the un-hired musicians in Los Angeles knowing, caring, or being able to do anything about it.
For symphonic media work, that’s simply not the case anymore. Once upon a time, the record companies (and radio stations and national networks) hired symphonic musicians to do symphonic media. Now orchestras pay for that work. Virtually all symphonic media work is paid for by the very same employer who pays us to play concerts (and with whom we already have a CBA)—our own symphonic institution. That employer then takes that media product and either sells it to a third party (such as Naxos Records) for far less than cost or simply gives it away to NPR, PBS, or a commercial radio syndication network. Or, as in the case of the new Philadelphia Orchestra agreement, the employer licenses a third party to distribute media product the orchestra has produced.
But what they can’t do is move the work elsewhere. The Chicago Symphony management won’t hire the Milwaukee Symphony to do media work even if the MSO musicians might work for less. And, because they won’t, there’s no race to the bottom. The Chicago Symphony musicians are free to negotiate with their management for whatever rate they feel they deserve. The worst that can happen is that their management can say “no” and that the media work isn’t done.
This is precisely the situation that we all face with our day jobs. My colleagues in Milwaukee may believe (and most of them do) that we deserve to be paid more for our live work than our management pays us. We are free to negotiate for a higher rate, and management is free to say “no.” And then the musicians are collectively free to decide whether or not they want to work for what’s being offered.
If there were a national rate for live orchestra work, and it were set at the rate the Chicago Symphony musicians would like (and indeed deserve), then there would not be an orchestra in Milwaukee unless the MSO musicians broke ranks with their colleagues in Chicago and made a local deal to save their jobs. But why should they be faced with the choice of being bad trade unionists or unemployed musicians?
National agreements are a good idea when the employers are truly national and able to move their work. But in our industry, national media agreements, by dictating rates that should be negotiated locally, cause some musicians to be paid nothing and others to be paid less than if they could negotiate directly with their local employers. Who does this help?
If we are to have national media agreements, let’s have them focus on issues that are hard to negotiate well locally. A good national media agreement would protect musicians against their media product being used to replace them or dismiss them, and would provide payments for use of their product in other areas. It would also protect musicians in the film and commercial recording industries from the misuse of symphonic musicians’ media work to replace them.
What a good national media agreement would not do is to interfere in the local negotiation of compensation between musicians and their employers for work that can’t be moved elsewhere. Any attempt to do so will result in less work and less income for orchestra musicians, as well as less symphonic media product. And, in a world where electronic media is more and more important for promoting orchestras to the public, that would not be good for orchestra musicians either.
Robert Levine is a member of the Milwaukee Symphony, president of AFM Local 8, a past editor of Senza Sordino, and chairman emeritus of ICSOM.