From its very founding in 1962, one of ICSOM’s stated goals was to establish a strike fund that could help our musicians withstand the financial pressure of a work stoppage. It wasn’t until 1970, more than a year after ICSOM had been granted conference status within the American Federation of Musicians, that the AFM Symphony-Opera Strike Fund was begun with a $250,000 loan, essentially a line of credit, from the Federation.
Today, 63 orchestras participate in the Strike Fund—48 orchestras from ICSOM, 10 from the Organization of Canadian Symphonic Musicians (OCSM), and five from the Regional Orchestra Players Association (ROPA). To be eligible to participate in the Fund, an orchestra must have a collective bargaining agreement that provides for a minimum weekly scale of $300 and a season of at least 15 weeks. Over the past 50 years, the Strike Fund has disbursed almost $12 million to 56 different orchestras involved in a strike or lockout.
The Fund is administered by six Trustees, three appointed by the AFM International Executive Board (IEB) and three who are active players in participating orchestras. Two of those positions are selected by ICSOM, while the third position alternates yearly between a trustee selected by ROPA and another selected by OCSM. The alternating Trustees participate in all Strike Fund deliberations. Those currently serving are AFM Secretary-Treasurer Jay Blumenthal, Director of Symphonic Services Rochelle Skolnick, IEB Member Edgardo Malaga, ICSOM President Paul Austin, ICSOM Treasurer Peter de Boor, and ROPA Secretary Karen Sandene. The OCSM Trustee position currently stands empty, due to Rob McCosh’s recent retirement.
During the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown beginning in March 2020, our ICSOM orchestras went to extraordinary lengths to stay active and connected to their audiences. Thanks in large measure to the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and the Integrated Media Agreement (IMA) sideletter, which tied a guaranteed amount of annual compensation to a commensurate percentage of free media, most of our orchestras were able to maintain some level of activity and salary.
But not all. As we well remember, several ICSOM employers furloughed their musicians, declaring force majeure or invoking the doctrine of impossibility. No concerts, no pay. Entire seasons were canceled, leaving our musicians stranded—deprived of all wages and, in one case, without health benefits.
Many of our musicians asked if the AFM Strike Fund could be utilized to assist these orchestras. Some level of payment from the Strike Fund would have gone a long way in supporting our members through this crisis–including by increasing their bargaining leverage. But the Strike Fund Trustees were unable to even consider awarding benefits because the AFM bylaws, as currently written, prohibit the consideration of any reason other than a strike or lockout. Even though the Trustees have the flexibility to extend or increase/decrease benefits, they are prohibited from considering other circumstances—such as force majeure—even though those circumstances may be virtually indistinguishable from the effects of a strike or lockout.
Because the ability to award Strike Fund benefits under such circumstances would help our musicians stand up to employers seeking to exploit catastrophic events like the pandemic, ICSOM and the four other Player Conferences (ROPA, OCSM, TMA, and RMA), along with 22 Locals, have submitted a bylaw amendment to the 102nd AFM Convention that would give the Trustees greater scope in their authority to award benefits. The full text appeared in the May issue of the International Musician, but is excerpted here:
SECTION 4(e). Strike benefits also shall be payable from the Fund in the following circumstances:
(1) a lockout, or
(2) upon application by the Local Executive Board to the Trustees and approval of a majority thereof, in the event an employer declares force majeure, asserts impossibility of performance, repudiates the local collective bargaining agreement in its entirety, furloughs musicians, or takes similar action that has the effect of depriving the musicians of all wages guaranteed under their local agreement.
This bylaw revision would give the Trustees the ability to consider awarding benefits in a situation like the imposition of force majeure—but it would not be a requirement to do so. It would simply allow them the freedom to consider the request and surrounding circumstances. The Trustees have a duty to maintain the fiscal health of the Fund, which would obviously be a part of the discussion, when deciding whether or not to award benefits in any given situation.
Unfortunately, the AFM IEB has, without consultation with the Strike Fund Trustees or the player conferences, submitted their own recommendation to increase the yearly Strike Fund dues by 50%. ICSOM does not feel that an increase in dues is necessary at this time, and does not believe that a dues increase is an appropriate response to ICSOM’s proposed bylaw amendment.
The current balance of the fund represents about 14 years worth of contributions. Looking back over the past 20 years, and particularly at the five most costly years in that period in terms of benefits paid out compared to contributions received, the Fund could endure 10 straight years as bad as those five without risking the fiscal health of the Fund. Furthermore, there is already a provision in the bylaws governing the Fund to automatically increase the dues should the balance fall below a certain threshold (currently $1 million).
The IEB’s proposed 50% increase to the Strike Fund dues would impose a significant financial burden on our members as well as the sizable number of Locals that pay those dues for us. There is also no need to grow the already sizable cushion in the Fund. Our proposed bylaw amendment would give the Trustees greater leeway in the awarding of benefits, but their ability and responsibility to act as prudent financial stewards of the Fund would remain the same.
The ICSOM Governing Board hopes that the Delegates to the 102nd AFM Convention will pass our proposed bylaw amendment as written—without any dues increase.