As a music student evolves into a professional, union membership will come into the picture. Unfortunately for myself, my initial steps on the union path were not so pleasant. It was a rocky relationship that got off on a bad start.
My first encounters were with veteran musicians; they had tainted viewpoints and poor salesmanship skills. At the time I did not know they weren’t official representatives, and the negative impression they gave off stuck with me for a good while.
First impressions are everything
I suspect that this is not an uncommon occurrence. A young musician encounters a grumpy veteran who tells them “hey kid, go join the union” without telling them why – or worse, tells horror stories.
Of course with every organized labor effort there are flaws and this I think is one of them for the American Federation of Musicians. No system is perfect, but what we have is the best we have and by far, union strengths far outweigh union weaknesses.
If I had a time machine and could go back and give advice to myself, it would be “don’t listen to jaded naysayers.”
It is helpful and important I think for students and professionals to comprehend this in depth. First impressions are important.
The big picture
In any business/labor situation there is an imbalance of power between the people that give the orders and the people that make the orders. Unionizing and collective bargaining evens that playing field a bit, but more importantly it puts the two sides in direct communication with one another.
While for some this encounter might slip into confrontation and end up getting national attention, for most others it is more civilized, like a business conversation.
Some critics might claim that unions stand in the way of real progress. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, argues to the contrary – that teachers play a key role in shaping education reform.
She asserts that teachers are active in reform and progress. If the word musician is substituted for teacher in the dialogue below, the parallels become quite clear.
Collective bargaining as a catalyst
CONAN: Does collective bargaining as we know it need to be changed?
Ms. WEINGARTEN: Look, everything as we know it needs to be changed these days. But the vehicle of collective bargaining is a huge catalyst to actually creating the transformation that we need in America’s public schools.
I was listening to your introduction, and as I was listening to it, I started thinking about what happens in Finland or in Singapore, where the schools actually do far better than our schools. And they’re virtually 100 percent unionized.
When I look at the states in our nation that do much better than the other states, they are 100 percent unionized. When I think about school districts in the nation, only about 53 percent of them actually have collective bargaining contracts.
So the bottom line is we have a bad economy at the very same time as we need to have transformative change in our schools to help all kids become the problem-solvers and the thinkers of the future.
But collective bargaining and what unions do to actually help teachers get the tools and conditions to do their jobs can be a vehicle to do this, as opposed to, frankly, almost any other vehicle I’ve ever seen.
CONAN: So the collective bargaining agreement, then, that process of collective bargaining, can be the vehicle for change?
Ms. WEINGARTEN: Absolutely. In fact, you look at what we’re doing in New Haven, Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Hillsboro, Philadelphia, all of these processes, collective bargaining has become the vehicle to create this kind of transformation because at the end of the day, transformation happens when you actually work with the people that have to do the work.
And even though I think it’s an oversimplification of the so-called reformers who, you know, basically want to shift all responsibility onto the backs of individual teachers, at the end of the day, teachers are really important in this process, the relationships that teachers and kids have are really important.
But it’s a little overrated to say that we, ourselves, as individual teachers, are going to be able to overcome every single in-school and out-of-school factor that happens to kids.
It’s an easy thing for management to say because it means that you don’t have to manage if you actually shift all the burden on to individual teachers. Having said that, we all need to do things a lot better than we’ve done before.
Mind the gap
As Ms. Weingarten argues, there is a correlation between collective bargaining and institutional advancement. In this broader sense, musicians with contracts are invested in the success of their institutions. They are creative stakeholders – they are part of the solution.
This is the bottom-line of why I believe in unions and contracts. Despite its faults, it all leads to bigger and greater things.
In today’s America too, where the gap between middle-class and upper-class grows ever wider, unions are the only thing that hold the acceptable standard and protect the working middle class.
Without them, the gap would be even wider.