The purpose of a labor union is to achieve improvements for its members, by means of collective action. These improvements traditionally have been in terms of employment—wages, benefits, and work rules. But historically they have not been limited to that, nor have the beneficiaries of the improvements been limited to the membership of the union that bargained them.
Any casual student of US history will remember the achievements of the standard eight-hour workday, paid sick leave, and the weekend brought about by many different unions, striving for each incremental improvement, but all building on what others had previously achieved. And those who study economics know that in states where unions are stronger, average wages are higher for all workers, not just those in bargaining units. Similarly, comparing a graph of income inequality in this country over time with one of union membership would reveal a strong negative correlation.
Many Americans take for granted the structural change wrought by unions, and are thus susceptible to conservative talking points that unions are a drain on the economy, making it harder for businesses to innovate and even operate, stifling job growth, and essentially extorting money (i.e. union dues) from hard-working people. I once sat agape when an educated friend told me, upon her return from Michigan, that, “nothing works there . . . because of the unions.”
The many successes of the labor movement came at a great cost. Most dramatically, hundreds have been killed in labor actions over the years, mostly in the formative years of unions in the US. But millions more suffered crippling loss of income and benefits as a result of strikes and lockouts, and many more were blackballed for their organizing activity. We have only to look at the recent history of ICSOM to identify notable examples of sacrifice, such as the 16-month lockout of the Minnesota Orchestra.
Sometimes the costs are enshrined right in the resulting collective bargaining agreement. It’s probably obvious to all readers of Senza Sordino that tradeoffs are a necessity in negotiation, and that more often than not what is traded is not merely what one side aspires to (e.g. proposed wage increase) but what it already possesses (e.g. a work rule forbidding Sunday performances). In some instances, the achievements for one part of a bargaining unit come at the expense of others in the bargaining unit. In the orchestral world we can readily identify some common areas where this dynamic has often been at play: principal overscale, cartage, or doubling, to name a few.
In my own orchestra, years ago we codified the principle that extra work (mostly musical theater) would be shared equitably among all the players, not doled out first to principals, then assistant principals, etc. This came at the direct expense of those principal players, who ultimately agreed that the resolution was better for the orchestra as a whole.
Arguably, the success of a union rests almost entirely on its willingness and ability to make these kinds of shared sacrifices for the cause. If members of the bargaining unit aren’t willing or able to remain on strike or locked out, solidarity can break down. The negotiating team may have to accept management’s final offer, or something close to it, no matter how odious it may be.
Perhaps by this point you’ve noticed a certain theme to this issue of Senza Sordino. Even a cursory glance at the cover page would tell the reader that this is not an ordinary issue. The Governing Board has devoted a great deal of time and energy to this push to pass the Butch Lewis Act because we feel it is important. We feel that it is the best hope to preserve the AFM-EPF without cuts to earned benefits. We have asked for your help in this endeavor, namely communicating with your US senator. The sacrifice involved is a few minutes of your time and perhaps a few pennies of electricity. It pales in comparison to other sacrifices routinely made.
Perhaps you have principled or ideological reasons why you think that Congress should not pass this bill. If that’s the case, please do two things: write to me and explain your reasoning (my contact info is in the masthead on page 2), and then ignore the rest of this column, as I would not want you to act against your principles.
(To my colleagues who live in the District of Columbia: We know that you don’t have any US senators. Have you considered asking your friends and colleagues who don’t live in DC to help out?)
For the rest of you, suppose your orchestra were on strike, and only two people showed up for scheduled picketing. Do you think that management would give serious consideration to the union’s proposals at the next bargaining session?
That’s analogous to the situation we’re in now, where appeals to almost 5500 active and emeritus members of ICSOM have produced 776 responses. That means only about 17% of our active members and 7% of our emeritus members have responded to this call to minimal action.
Perhaps you think or know that your senator already supports it. Wouldn’t it be great if they had a demonstrable show of support from their constituents to energize them?
Perhaps you think or know that your senator is firmly opposed to it. If they hear vocal support for the bill, it might weaken their opposition, and they might be amenable to a compromise of some sort.
Perhaps you think that this bill has no hope of passage in the Senate. In light of the current political alignment, that belief may be understandable. But given how little it will cost you—less than two minutes of your time, tops—perhaps you’d be willing to do it, if for no other reason than your brothers and sisters in ICSOM have asked you to do so.
Perhaps you’ve already written the emails, called your senators, and tweeted your support. On behalf of ICSOM, thank you! But now, perhaps you could ask your colleagues if they have done the same?
In light of the recent publication of a white paper, Multiemployer Pension Recapitalization And Reform Plan, by Senators Grassley and Alexander, it is even more important that our voices be heard. While the Governing Board has not yet formulated an official position on this white paper, my own initial reading of it is highly unfavorable, with its proposal for participant “copayments” and possible conversion of multi-employer pension plans into nothing more than uninsured defined contribution plans. But it might attract the support of senators who would otherwise have supported Butch Lewis—unless they hear your voice.
There’s no question that the political and legal climate for unions is more fraught than ever—just read Kevin Case’s piece about recent NLRB decisions (page 3) to get an idea. And as we in the union movement struggle to protect and build on gains made by our predecessors, it can feel wearying and pointless (as acknowledged in Meredith Snow’s chair report, “Apathy”, on page 1). But these are the very reasons it is so important for us to engage more, not less. If we want our union to achieve, we have to participate.