As members of ICSOM we are facing unrelenting attacks on our orchestras, on unions, and on all we have strived to build together over the last half century. We are hearing a constant refrain that our orchestras have structural deficits that must be eliminated, that the current business model for the symphony orchestra is unsustainable, and that our defined benefit pension plans are too costly and will lead to financial ruin for our institutions. We are dealing with a climate where some managers and boards are attempting to take advantage of challenging economic times to decimate and dismantle our contracts and all that ICSOM has achieved since its founding in 1962. Much of what ICSOM has fought to build is in danger as vast areas of our contracts are attacked—cuts in weeks of employment, cuts in player complements, large cuts in salary and benefits, and attempts to redefine our work week and our work rules.
In light of the attacks on our orchestras across the country, I am thinking more about the debt I owe to those who made my job in the San Francisco Symphony what it is today. Last month the New York Times ran a story that spoke of Barack Obama’s standard greeting to African-Americans who had broken color barriers. Visibly moved when meeting prominent figures from the civil rights movement, he reportedly says the following words each time: “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you.”
As a woman who plays in an orchestra, I am constantly aware of those who came before me, women who broke down barriers and made it possible for me to take auditions without disguising my gender, women who put up with the hazing, teasing, and insults of those who were uncomfortable with their efforts and ability to break down barriers, and women who made the ladies locker room a normal part of any hall’s backstage facilities. As a student at New England Conservatory in Boston, I listened to stories my teacher, Lois Schaefer, longtime piccoloist of the Boston Symphony, used to tell me about the discrimination she faced as a female orchestral musician. Ms. Schaefer sent resumes that listed her name as L. Schaefer so the men looking at her resume wouldn’t know that she was female, and remembered being laughed out of the room or even the victim of unwanted sexual advances when she was allowed to audition. Flutist Doriot Dwyer was the first woman to be appointed to a principal position in a major orchestra, and the stories of what she had to deal with in Boston are legendary. (My favorite is the time a live lobster was released under her chair when she played the solo in Daphnis and Chloé!) Each time I walk on stage, and each time I walk into the women’s dressing room, I think of these women and the debt I owe them. Ms. Schaefer and Mrs. Dwyer, I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you.
As a labor activist, I feel a tremendous debt to the musicians who put themselves and their economic security on the line so that the rest of us can have the job security and improved wages and working conditions we enjoy today, along with the right to negotiate and ratify our own contracts. To people I became acquainted or reacquainted with at this summer’s ICSOM Conference like Sam Denov, Tom Hall, Wally Kujala, and others, who acted courageously in the face of great risk in the 1960s at the time of ICSOM’s founding, and to members of my own orchestra like former 3rd trumpet Chris Bogios and principal flutist Paul Renzi—I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you.
Currently there is a situation in San Francisco, Nashville, and possibly other cities where musicians from our ICSOM orchestras are playing non-union video game sessions. At a time when unions in the United States are being attacked from all sides, accepting nonunion work seriously undermines the union’s ability to maintain standards for wages, benefits, and working conditions for all our media agreements. The International Executive Board of the AFM, representatives from the RMA, and other local members who perform this work have spent hundreds of hours in an effort to organize videogame work and to craft an agreement for videogames that compensates musicians fairly. Companies like Sony can afford to pay reasonable rates for videogame work, but why would they pay fair rates if well-paid musicians from some of our ICSOM orchestras are willing to do the work non-union?
Our locals are there at the table with us as we negotiate this year and every year, supporting our efforts and paying for our attorneys and negotiating expenses from our dues. Any lapse in solidarity has the effect of weakening the union’s effectiveness and credibility in all of its dealings with employers, including negotiations with the orchestras to which our members belong. There is essentially no difference between accepting this non-union work and choosing to cross a picket line of your colleagues.
I urge all members of our orchestras to remember those who came before us, those who fought for the rights and benefits we have today, those who acted heroically under difficult circumstances. Think about the sacrifices these musicians made. Think about the AFM and your local and about keeping both healthy and strong. Think about the importance of solidarity in the face of some of the harshest attacks we’ve seen on unions since the 1930s. Think about the retired members of your orchestra who fought to improve the standard of living for musicians and their families, and think about what you would want to say the next time you meet one—I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you.
Then say no to non-union work. It’s not difficult, merely the loss of a few hundred dollars. You don’t have to be heroic. Turn it down and give the AFM the chance to organize the work for the good of all musicians.
As we look back on the last fifty years and all that we have achieved together as symphonic musicians dedicated to our art form, we must rededicate ourselves to activism and even stronger unity to weather the difficult times we are dealing with now. Find a musician you can thank, a musician to whom you can say those words: “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you.” Say it to a teacher, a colleague, a retired member of your orchestra. It will mean a lot to them, and it will go a long way toward helping us all rededicate ourselves to the principles of unionism and solidarity.