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From the January-February
2009 issue of Union Democracy Review #177
New democracy battles in Musicians Union
by Robert Levine
The most transformative event in the
history of the American Federation of Musicians was a revolt in the 1950s
by musicians who worked in recording studios and Hollywood sound stages
against an autocratic AFM administration. The conflict, which included
de-certification of the AFM in favor of a union started by recording musicians,
ended with an eventual reconciliation with the AFM upon promises by the
new administration to redress the musicians' grievances.
It is ironic, then, that the achievements of that
rank-and-file revolt are at risk because of a conflict between a new generation
of recording musicians and what they believe to be another autocratic
AFM administration. Doubly ironic is the fact that the current dispute
is about the same issues at stake 60 years ago: payments to musicians
when recordings are re-used and the union's unwillingness to involve the
rank-and-file in the negotiation, ratification and administration of their
A guarantee of rank-and-file involvement for recording
musicians was especially important, as their most important agreements
were not negotiated by their locals, but by national officers with little
expertise about the industry and who were not elected by the rank-and-file.
So the system of "player conferences" developed - internal union
caucuses for symphonic, recording, and theater musicians that transcended
local boundaries and provided rank-and-file input on issues of concern
to those musicians. It was a system that worked as long as national officers
were willing to accept such input. It began to break down with the election
of a new AFM president, Tom Lee, in 2001.
Lee, a long-time IEB member and local officer from
Washington DC, won a very close race against the incumbent. It soon became
clear that he viewed the role of the player conferences far more narrowly
than had his immediate predecessors. Conventions followed his lead by
voting new work dues on symphonic and recording musicians without their
consent or input, and with no obligation for the administration to provide
better services to AFM members working under CBAs.
At the same time, the AFM was paying less and less
attention to the Recording Musicians Association (RMA), the recording
musicians' player conference, about negotiations and contract administration,
culminating in a series of deals done by the AFM over the vociferous objections
of the RMA. A particular sore point for the RMA was that AFM-promulgated
videogame agreements gave employers complete freedom to re-use material
recorded for videogames in other media with no additional payment to the
musicians, which the RMA feared could lead to collapse of the whole re-use
payment system. And the money at stake is significant. In 2008, the Film
Musicians Secondary Market Fund (FMSMF) alone distributed a total of over
$72 million to more than 17,000 AFM members, 2,078 receiving over $2,500
Four events kicked the conflict into overdrive: the
formation of the Professional Musicians Guild (PMG) in 2006, the re-election
of Tom Lee at the 2007 Convention, along with the defeat or retirement
of all of those on the IEB who opposed his handling of the conflict, new
dues on payments from supplemental market funds to recording musicians
(in addition to the dues already charged on the original recording sessions),
and a lawsuit against the AFM over dues.
The PMG was, in the words of Variety magazine, formed
"by L.A. players who have been frustrated by what they see as a series
of failures on the part of the national leadership of the AFM [including]
‘sweetheart deals’ and ‘secret backroom deals’ --
to use two phrases from the PMG's membership pitch -- that, if true, are
in violation of existing AFM contracts." Needless to say, even the
hint of a repeat of the 1958 de-certification by recording musicians threw
the AFM into a frenzy.
The lawsuit, which was filed in November 2007 by several
recording musicians, alleges that the AFM's work dues on promulgated agreements
violate its own bylaws. The court has ordered that those work dues be
escrowed until the trial later this year.
These events, coupled with the lack of any effective
opposition to Lee on the IEB, have caused the AFM to act with a new recklessness.
The AFM has threatened two recording musicians (one an officer of the
RMA) with expulsion for being "active organizers, supporters and
officers of the PMG," even though none of those things is a chargeable
offense under AFM bylaws. The AFM filed a lawsuit against an anonymous
blogger for a satirical posting on a blog called "The AFM in Trouble,"
alleging defamation and trademark infringement for use of a graphic based
on the AFM seal. The AFM then got court orders against Google, Comcast,
and Yahoo in order to unmask the identity of the blogger. The blog subsequently
vanished without explanation in May 2008.
The AFM subpoenaed RMA President Phil Ayling in connection
with the lawsuit, even though neither Ayling nor the RMA are parties to
the suit. The subpoena casts a very wide net over communications between
Ayling, the RMA, and pretty much anyone they might have talked to about
the issues between the RMA and the AFM. What relevance those communications
might have to the lawsuit has yet to be explained by the AFM.
Lastly, the IEB has proposed removing the RMA as an
AFM player conference - another first in AFM history. News of a resolution
to consider such action began leaking immediately after it was adopted
by the IEB in June 2008. RMA members in Nashville were furious that their
Local's president and secretary-treasurer, both members of the IEB, had
supported de-conferencing the RMA. In December 2008, both were defeated
in their bids for local re-election; the first time in AFM history that
a local officer has been thrown out for actions taken as a member of the
IEB. The new president, an active recording musician, is president of
the RMA chapter in Nashville and an RMA board member.
Meanwhile, the dues passed by the 2007 Convention
on payments from supplemental market funds remain largely uncollected,
due to the AFM's inability to get the necessary payroll information from
the FMSMF. The fact that recording musicians don't want to pay even more
dues to a union they believe is working against their interests is an
(Robert Levine is a member of the Milwaukee Symphony,
president of AFM
Local 8, chairman emeritus of ICSOM,
and writes "The
AFM Observer" blog.)
views: Recording musicians clash inside the AFM
New democracy battles in Musicians union
On the eve of elections in Musicians Local 802
is alive in Musicians Local 802 ($100 Plus Club News #100)
More on Musicians Local 802 ($100 Plus Club News #101)
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