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SSD Advocates for Symphony Musicians and their Local Unions

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advocates-for-symphony-musicians Editor's Abstract

Collective representation touches the lives of every orchestra musician at a number of contact points. Although most musicians are aware of what “the union” is, they may not realize how many facets of the union directly influence their career. One of those contact points is the Symphonic Services Division (SSD).

In an effort to help professional orchestra musicians better understand the organizations which represent them, SSD Executive Director, Laura Brownell, has written an introductory guide explaining what SSD is, how it connects with the musicians, and what they are working on this season.

Drew McManus

The Symphonic Services Division (SSD) is a department of the American Federation of Musicians of the United States and Canada (AFM). The AFM, based in New York City, is a federation of geographically determined Local unions.Established in 1896, the AFM currently represents more than 90,000 musicians.Approximately 10,000 AFM members perform in symphony, opera, and ballet orchestras.Since bargaining rights for orchestras are held by AFM Local unions, the SSD plays a supporting role, providing advice and assistance to Local unions, orchestra committees, and rank and file members. The SSD also maintains a strong presence at the industry level.

The SSD maintains a field staff that provides negotiating and contract administration services.Staff negotiators engage in bargaining for twenty-five to thirty renewal agreements every year.SSD staff members also handle telephone and e-mail requests for advice and assistance on such matters.There is a full-time staff member whose time is devoted to advising on electronic media projects and providing support for media negotiations.

The SSD retains professionals who provide legal advice, analysis of orchestra finances, and public relations training.The SSD, in conjunction with the AFM’s Organizing and Education Department, assists orchestras that wish to obtain union recognition and organize for collective bargaining.Education and training are provided through on site visits, at Player Conference meetings, and at seminars and symposiums dedicated to symphonic issues.Annually, the SSD prepares wage charts that summarize terms and conditions for professional orchestras in the United States and Canada.There is a special “hot line” for audition inquiries. A resource collection is maintained so that up to date comparative information and analysis can be provided.Downloadable handouts on a wide variety of topics are available at www.afm.org.

The SSD Director, in addition to overseeing all of the core front line activities, is an active participant at the industry level.There are regular meetings with other leaders in the field in order to maintain good relationships and to work on projects of mutual interest.Examples of joint union-management initiatives include the Collaborative Database Project Task Force, convened by the American Symphony Orchestra League, and the various projects and meetings facilitated by the Mellon Foundation.Of particular significance are the ongoing negotiations between the AFM and an employer group of symphony managers in the area of electronic media.Negotiations for a new audio recording agreement have been completed.The Symphony Opera Ballet Internet Agreement will be next on the docket as the industry moves to respond to changes in the way people purchase and experience music.The shared objective is to find ways to promote orchestral organizations through the use of electronic media while providing fair compensation for AFM members.

The overriding mission of the SSD is to ensure that symphonic performance remains a viable career choice for the bright, highly educated people who perform in orchestras.History has shown that the union impact on the terms and conditions of work for performing artists, including musicians, is significant.Performers need an advocate and the AFM has proven, through its Locals and through the work of the SSD, to be an able advocate for its symphonic members.Virtually all professional symphony musicians are organized and working under collective bargaining agreements.This gives the union a tremendous amount of power.That power, if used responsibly in the context of advocacy for the orchestral field as a whole, will continue to result in improved terms and conditions of work for symphony musicians across North America.

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