The Minnesota State Fair was the scene of my most recent pro-ICSOM, pro-union experience. My experience also echoes ICSOM Secretary Laura Ross’ excellent Senza Sordino article from last December, entitled “Why be an AFM Convention Delegate?” Here’s the story:
The first Minnesota State Fair was held in 1859. It moved to its present site at the State Fairgrounds in Falcon Heights in 1885. Common wisdom holds that it is the largest in the U.S. in terms of daily attendance but second largest in terms of overall attendance, only because the Texas State Fair runs twice as long. It was just a decade later, in 1896, that the American Federation of Musicians was established, to represent the collective and individual interests of professional musicians.
The current AFM mission statement, from the Federation website, begins with these words: “We are the American Federation of Musicians of the United States and Canada, professional musicians united through our Locals.” It goes on to list fifteen objectives, commitments and actions. These three are particularly relevant:
- We will have a meaningful voice in decisions that affect us.
- Our collective voice and power will be realized in a democratic and progressive union.
- We must commit to actively participating in the democratic institutions of our union.
To paraphrase these words from the AFM: in order to have a voice in the way our union is governed, we must participate meaningfully, using the democratic process. Many who attended the recent ICSOM Conference in Norfolk, Virginia, were aware already of disconnectedness, sometimes quite grievous, between the current AFM leadership and its symphonic constituents. The Conference, hosted by Local 125 and the musicians of the Virginia Symphony, was outstandingly successful due in great part to the unity shared by those in attendance. This remarkable unity is a far cry from the feeling of disharmony I remember well from the 2007 AFM Convention.
The symphonic player conferences of the AFM, through their individual work dues, contribute over half of the Federation’s overall work dues. Yet how does the Federation respond? By consigning to its Symphonic Services Division (SSD) a mere 10% of its budget, and leaving the post of SSD Director unfilled for the better part of a year.
Please understand. I’m a lifelong believer in taxing those who can afford to pay in order to assist those who can’t, even if it is I who pay more taxes than many. I’m fine with that. While I do not expect that for every dollar I send to our government in taxes I will realize a dollar’s worth of benefits, I do expect that, for my taxes, I also will enjoy a certain level of governmental benefit and protection. Specifically, one thing I expect is to be assured enough benefits that I can maintain solvency, continue supporting the government, and keep paying taxes. Indeed, would it make any sense at all for the government to take my taxes and then leave me high and dry if I begin to run into trouble? (Disclaimer: I have no wish to become enmeshed in debating current government policy, simply to offer this as a metaphor for the current situation at the national level in our union.)
Why would the Federation—specifically current AFM President Tom Lee—seemingly ignore symphonic musicians during their worst crisis since the inception of ICSOM? Numbers are telling: the health of the AFM depends on the health of its symphonic members. What sense does it make to ignore their distress during a time of acute economic crisis? Why leave the post of SSD Director unfilled during the worst months of the economic crisis?
The ICSOM Governing Board posed these questions directly to President Lee. So far no meaningful response has been forthcoming. Could this be an indication that the time is approaching for bylaw change and insistence on leadership that represents us properly?
For those who may be unaware of the process, elections at the national level take place only at the national AFM Convention. The next Convention will take place in June 2010, only seven months from now. Voting rights are held not by individual union members like you and me, but rather by a small number of elected delegates from the locals. The number of voting delegates, along with the number of votes assigned to each, is determined by the size of the local. Each local—no matter how small—is allocated at least one delegate with at least one vote.
Although structured with an eye toward fair representation, this can cause a lopsided voting system. Every small local—no matter how few members, and perhaps with no symphonic members at all—has a delegate with one or more votes. Yet larger locals may have only two or three delegates casting all their votes. For example, the Twin Cities Musicians Union (Local 30-73, Minneapolis and Saint Paul), with two ICSOM orchestras and one ROPA orchestra, and nearly 1400 members, elects only three voting delegates. Therefore a dozen small locals, each with 50–100 members, probably few to none of them symphonic, would aggregate four times as many voting delegates controlling all their votes.
It is a political fact that it is all too easy for the Federation leadership to woo those small locals, some without any fulltime musician members, away from concern over the well-being of their symphonic colleagues, who might seem to exist “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” Conversely, we symphonic musicians—especially those operating under good contracts, most especially those with full-year contracts that (at least until recently) have continued to grow and meet or exceed cost-of-living expenses—may be tempted to feel insulated, and isolated, and to grow complacent.
By now I assume it is clear why I am emphasizing the three objectives listed above: For any individual members, like symphonic musicians, to have that “meaningful voice” in our futures as unionized musicians, we must have a strong union. In order to keep that union strong, “democratic and progressive” in ways I fear the union has neglected, we must work at it. To effect any meaningful regime change, what is required is our “active participation.”
Specifically, what is required is voting power at the AFM Convention. We symphonic musicians must voice strongly to our local boards and local voting delegates that the need for responsible leadership at the executive level of the Federation has never been greater. We symphonic musicians must run for, and be elected to, local boards of directors, especially to positions that include the privilege of voting delegate at the national conference.
Just as we depend on our national union we depend on our locals: we must forge and maintain strong relationships with our local boards and our fellow non-symphonic members. And just as we depend on them, they depend on us—on our unity and on our support. It is no secret that in most cities with ICSOM orchestras, the percentage of financial support by symphonic players is even greater than nationally. In the Twin Cities local, according to the 2008–2009 ICSOM Wage Chart, ICSOM orchestra work dues contribute nearly 80% of the local’s annual budget.
Which brings us back to the final Monday of August, at the Minnesota State Fair.
Coincidentally, while in Norfolk for the ICSOM Conference I was contacted by Clare Zupetz, office manager for the Twin Cities Musicians Union. She asked if I might have time to volunteer at the Local 30-73 booth at the State Fair. Although it is likely that I would have done so anyway, all that has been happening in the Federation, and especially in ICSOM, in recent months, fueled my eagerness to be there.
Any Twin Cities trade union local that is part of the AFL-CIO, including our local, can have a booth at the AFL-CIO building on the State Fairgrounds. Two factoids about this building: (a) it is the first ‘green’ building at the State Fair, built just one year ago; (b) despite its prime location, one short block inside the main gate, it is the only building not on the State Fair map—evidently because it is the AFL-CIO that owns the property, and not the State Fair Corporation.
Like the other unions there, the Local 30-73 has a shaded cart, director’s chairs for those manning the booth, and hundreds of brochures and pamphlets to give to passers-by. Because of the prime location of the building, there are plenty of people who do stop. The local also has a cutout, where folks can stick their heads through for photo ops (a rock musician—next year we’ll try to get a symphonic one there, too), as well as a portable stage. This year’s paid live performances were mostly popular solos and duets, but there was even a small chorus. (Next year maybe some chamber music…)
Minnesota Orchestra ICSOM Delegate Norbert Nielubowski was also at the booth with me. Other musicians performed or stopped by, including David Frost, Columbus Symphony principal librarian, who grew up in Saint Paul and happened to be in town visiting relatives. Ms. Zupetz especially was the ever-gracious hostess, helpful and welcoming to everyone—an ideal voice for our local.
This proved to be an excellent opportunity to represent the local out in the community, at an event that embodies “Minnesota Nice.” Although there is no way to measure the overall effect of my presence there, I know that we who were there took this golden opportunity to discuss the local and national situations, and began to strategize ways to effect much-needed change—everything from altering or expanding the slate at the next local election, to working with those on the local board to motivate change at the national level, at next year’s Convention.
The timing could not have been more propitious for ICSOM that we were able to volunteer at the Twin Cities Musicians Union booth at the Minnesota State Fair. Moreover, it didn’t rain, and it wasn’t too hot. And, after I’d finished my four volunteer hours, I did enjoy that scoop of coconut gelato on a coconut half shell from the booth at the foot of the SkyRide.
In retrospect, my hopes and dreams for next year at the Minnesota State Fair: a symphonic photo cutout, chamber music demos and performances, dark-chocolate frozen key lime pie (on a stick), and an executive branch that values and is committed to work on behalf of every member of the American Federation of Musicians.