Most political attacks, especially those of a personal nature, are really just distractions. They are designed to keep people from examining the real issues that could affect their lives. This is true of national politics, and it is certainly true of politics within the American Federation of Musicians. Recently, ICSOM has been the subject of a number of attacks—and a lot of misinformation. While disheartening, these attacks will not distract us from our work or our message of unity, even while others respond to that message with parody and distortions. These are serious times for orchestras and our union, and we are raising serious questions. Unfortunately, all too often these concerns are answered by posturing.
At a time when orchestral musicians across the nation have faced serious cutbacks, ICSOM has rallied behind a message of unity in supporting our colleagues, as we believe our union is supposed to do. Our recent Call to Action to assist the musicians of the Honolulu Symphony has brought in over $110,000, an astonishing figure considering the hardships we all are facing. This means that, in approximately 26 months, we have raised over $340,000 for ICSOM musicians in need. That is the true message of ICSOM in 2010: United we stand. Wherever one is in need, we all respond; and what happens to one of us happens to all of us. If only this message could be embraced by the entire AFM.
ICSOM’s message is one of unity and peace, and it is a message that asks: Can’t debate be reasonably held in an open forum, beyond anonymous attacks on blogs? Can’t differences of opinions be addressed in a spirit of civility and openness? Must those who voluntarily seek to serve also endure the politics of personal destruction?
Within the AFM, this negativity is really nothing new. Reader’s Digest published an article way back in 1956 about AFM politics, called “The Union That Fights Its Workers.” It seems that there is a renewal of this approach in debating the important issues before us. But it doesn’t have to be this way. With the troubles facing this union, especially within the AFM pension fund, what is needed is inspiration, not desperation.
Orchestral musicians surely can’t help but notice that the acronym “ICSOM” seems to be making fewer and fewer appearances in the International Musician. In the February issue, the AFM president’s report takes great credit for how the Symphonic Services Division (SSD) is creating innovative programs for the field. And, that is fine. We are pleased that the department is finally taking on some of the initiatives that ICSOM has been promoting for several years. Most notably, the revamped wage chart project—a project brought to the leadership of the SSD by members of the Minnesota Orchestra and the ICSOM Governing Board that languished for years while incomplete and inaccurate wage charts were produced during our greatest time of crisis and need—is now finally moving forward. If the AFM president feels the need to take credit for ICSOM-initiated projects, we understand. It is just politics. If the AFM needs to address the fundraising activities for Honolulu by omitting any reference to ICSOM in the February International Musician, even though it was an ICSOM effort, we understand. Again, it is just politics. But, marginalizing orchestral musicians who keep this union afloat through substantial work dues will not serve the cause of unity, and political posturing does not enhance the lives of the union’s members.
Recently, a parody of the December 2009 issue of Senza Sordino was distributed widely. The source was the Small Locals Committee, led by a gentleman named John Leite. I have to say, I find it strange to be serving as chairman of an organization that is attacked by a committee of small locals, especially since I have been a member of small locals throughout my entire ICSOM career. I joined Local 125 in 1979, and Local 500 in 1987, both of which have approximately two hundred members (and fewer when I joined them).
The Small Locals Committee, or Mr. Leite, had some disagreement with an article written by ICSOM Member at Large Paul Gunther, who is widely recognized as one of the most respected leaders within ICSOM. Paul’s article was titled “I Went to the State Fair—for ICSOM” and was a populist message that sought to inspire questions. It did not advocate for any bylaw change or for any electoral position. The Small Locals Committee took issue with Paul’s message.
But rather than reach out to ICSOM with a request to respond appropriately, the Small Locals Committee chose to issue a parody of Senza Sordino, titled Senza Voce , numbered Volume 1, No. 1, and labeled “The Official Voice of the Small Locals Committee.” The title of the article was “I Went to the Library—for SLC” (a personal reference, of course, to the that fact that Paul is the librarian of the Minnesota Orchestra).
I won’t take issue with all the points contained in the parody issue. Instead, we will regard this as an example of imitation being the sincerest form of flattery and recognize that when a publication has been as successful and historic as Senza Sordino, there will be parodies. We regret though, that the use of this method only served to deny the small locals of our union, which are supposedly represented by the Small Locals Committee, an opportunity for a true and fair representation of their opinions.
We further regret, and indeed resent, that this parody was posted on the AFM’s website, a website that is maintained with your dues money. It is certainly unfortunate that a website that should be used to promote unity was instead used to attack a group of loyal AFM members who have repeatedly been proponents of unity.
And then, there is the “Committee for a More Responsible Local 47.” I think that some of you might receive its weekly e-mails, as it somehow seems to have managed to harvest our delegate list without our permission or consultation. In fact, it is kind enough to send me two copies every week, neither of which I read—at least not until recently.
I almost hesitate to even mention “The Committee,” as it refers to itself. It engages in muckraking of the lowest order, and it does not like to be confused with facts. Please don’t get me wrong, The Committee is welcome to its viewpoint on AFM politics, and I would respect their expressing that viewpoint if they did it in a respectable manner. Instead, it acts anonymously, allows anonymous comments which are frequently of a personal nature, and its representing of certain “facts” is either direct distortion—or the result of a lack of understanding.
The difficulties between the symphonic players’ conferences and the AFM president in the selection of the new director of the SSD were misrepresented in one Committee posting. This mystified us, as we have published a detailed account of that, which was widely distributed through Senza Sordino, the ICSOM website, and both of our e-lists, as well as on Twitter and Facebook. It is true that we received a request to clarify our position, but we chose not to respond to an unsigned e-mail. The Committee refuses to identify itself. We can’t debate or communicate with an unknown person. Also, the questions posed to us were impossible to answer, as their representation of events was so undeniably false and distorted by artless political spin.
But, don’t get me wrong. I really understand all of this. It is just politics. But, how does it serve to advance debate? How does it serve to address crucial problems within the AFM pension? How does it promote our orchestras to their communities? How does it spread a positive message of hope for the future of music and the arts in America? How does pitting musician against musician serve the cause of our union?
I understand that in issuing these criticisms I might become a target of similar personal attacks. I don’t mind. I am willing to stand up for the message of unity and civility that ICSOM represents, and I understand that standing up always increases your chance of being hit by lightning. I choose to stand anyway. Enough is enough.
Some organizations foster debate by uniting, and some stifle debate by dividing. Sadly, it is usually the latter. It is our understanding that the International Executive Board recently repealed a series of “Five Points” that were enacted in 2005. The Five Points promoted communication and unity within the union and gave the heads of the Players Conferences an opportunity to address the delegates to the AFM Convention. Unfortunately, that opportunity seems to have been unceremoniously eroded.
It doesn’t have to be this way. It shouldn’t be this way. But, how can we change the pervasive atmosphere of disunity and personal attacks that dominate the politics of the AFM?
I can only ask: Have you done enough? Have the ICSOM delegates reported to their colleagues about the events from last summer’s conference? Have you spoken with your Local officers? Have you volunteered in your community to reflect a positive view of the future of the arts? Have you joined Americans for the Arts ? Have you read these articles in Senza Sordino and encouraged your colleagues to do the same? Have you distributed the remarks of the ICSOM chairman before the International Executive Board in Las Vegas from July of 2009?
It is time to stand up, even if we do risk being hit by lightning. We have seen what we can accomplish together, but there is not much time. I have heard it said that we like to buy books because we believe we are buying the time to read them. But we can’t buy any more time. Your pension is at stake. Your union is at stake. Your livelihood is at stake.
It is indeed time to stand, and if we stand together we will be heard. I call now for an end to the personal attacks within our union. I call for debate, not discord. I call for a unity that is strong enough to welcome such debate, and for candidates courageous enough to participate.
This will not happen without you.
Chairperson Ridge’s address to the IEB regarding the delayed and unnecessarily divisive process through which the director of the SSD was appointed is available in the September 2009 issue of Senza Sordino.