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Symphony Musicians and Their Local Union

0 David Angus
orchestra2 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 Local union.

In an effort to help professional orchestra musicians better understand the organizations which represent them David Angus, President & Secretary-Treasurer of the Rochester Musicians’ Association, Local 66 of the American Federation of Musicians, and hornist with the Rochester Philhamonic Orchestra, has written an introductory guide explaining what how Locals function within the American Federation of Musicians and how they connect with their respective orchestral musicians.

Drew McManus

The vast majority of musicians who play in professional symphony orchestras in the United States and Canada do so as members of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM). Whether or not these musicians realize it, there are many factors of their professional existence that are influenced or even controlled by the bylaws of the AFM and by the role of the Local union that is derived from those bylaws and from labor law.

Article 14, Section 4(a) of the AFM bylaws establishes that “the home Local shall be the exclusive bargaining representative of the members of a Symphonic Orchestra.” Under labor law, the bargaining representative is the entity that has the right and responsibility to negotiate the contract with the employer.That collective bargaining agreement (CBA) establishes the wages and working conditions under which the musicians are employed.In addition, the bargaining representative is responsible for administering and enforcing the contract on behalf of the musicians.

While the AFM bylaws establish that the Local union has the exclusive right, consistent with labor law, to perform these tasks, the work is usually shared among many individuals and committees that function in various capacities. Most of the individuals engaged in this work are not the officers of the Local.The best known of these other entities is the orchestra committee.The existence of the orchestra committee is anticipated by the AFM bylaws and guaranteed to symphony musicians in Article 5, Section 39 which states that “all Locals having symphonic orchestras……… shall recognize orchestra committees, elected by the orchestra, to serve as liaison between the orchestra players and the Local.”

In fact, the role of orchestra committees routinely goes far beyond serving as liaison. In most orchestras, this committee functions as the Local’s agent in the workplace, dealing with day-to-day issues and insuring that terms and provisions of the contract are honored.It also functions as the key group in researching contractual issues, polling the musicians and formulating negotiating positions if not actually negotiating the contract.Some orchestras also have a union steward, an individual who officially represents the Local in the workplace.The steward protects the interests of the union (and therefore the musicians) and also reports issues of concern to the Local.The steward is generally selected, or at least approved, by the Local and the union usually pays him/her.

The typical orchestra contract also calls for a variety of other committees and/or representatives that are frequently elected by the musicians of the orchestra. These individuals serve the musicians’ interests on myriad issues including, but not limited to, artistic advisory, tours, educational programs, community outreach and Board representation.Symphony musicians want a say in determining how they go about their day-to-day work life, and they have many opportunities to at least influence these factors by serving.

No matter what the specific function of musician representatives or committees, there is almost always some connection to provisions of the collective bargaining agreement and that connection may well be of significance. The contractual issues are not always obvious or direct, but the impact on matters of concern can nonetheless be very real.One who contemplates the functioning of all of these individuals and committees will soon realize that representation in a symphony orchestra is a dynamic process involving many people in numerous capacities. The coordination and cooperation of these forces is not easy, but it is very important if the interests and concerns of all of the musicians are to be served.

The responsibilities of the Local as the exclusive bargaining representative are therefore divided between many people serving in various capacities and on a variety of committees. Whether or not they realize it (and sometimes they don’t), these individuals are functioning as agents of the Local.And even when musicians have a general idea of their role as agent for the union on behalf of their colleagues, they may not be aware of the full ramifications.The orchestra committee needs to monitor all of these activities, and this aspect of the job is not always a comfortable task.The committee also needs to keep the union informed of any issues or problems that may develop.This responsibility to monitor activities does not derive, as some may think, from the committee’s desire to be controlling.Rather, the union and those who represent it have a responsibility under labor law to protect the rights of those who work under the contract.This responsibility is called the duty of fair representation (DFR).

Under the duty of fair representation, the union has an obligation to be fair and equal in its dealings with every member of the bargaining unit. Each individual musician is protected by DFR.The responsibility extends all the way from negotiation of the contract itself and enforcement of provisions of the contract on behalf of the entire bargaining unit down to the daily work life of each individual musician and consideration of some problem or dispute that might impact only a single person.The Local has a responsibility to investigate any complaint that is officially raised.The duty does not require that the union side with any particular musician or musicians on a specific issue; there can well be issues on which musicians take opposing or contradicting positions.But the union has the obligation to decide an issue on the merits after a proper investigation.

In order to enforce the contract and protect the musicians, the Local may need to use the grievance and arbitration clause that is part of most orchestra contracts. This process is a method by which disputes between the employer and the union can be settled.Before grievance and arbitration clauses were common in collective bargaining agreements a contractual dispute of even minor significance may have escalated into a strike or lockout that impacted the entire organization.The grievance and arbitration process was added to most contracts over time in order to avoid such disruptions.

The process of grievance and arbitration provides a framework upon which contractual disputes or, in some contracts, any dispute between the two parties, can be registered and adjudicated. The specifics of the process vary from contract to contract and orchestra to orchestra, but the procedure generally involves one side raising an issue first informally and then through a specific written complaint, an examination and fact-finding of the specific details surrounding the complaint, an attempt to settle the issue first between the employer and the union and, failing agreement, finally the resolution of the issue by an arbitrator who acts as an impartial third party.The terms of the grievance and arbitration clause normally obligate the parties to agree in advance to accept the ruling of the arbitrator as final and binding.The arbitrator, for his/her part, is expected to decide the issue based upon the merits of the case, but he/she may also be obligated to base the decision on specific contractual terms.If the contractual language is unclear or ambiguous (which is not uncommon), the arbitrator may have to look to the bargaining history and/or to past practice to determine the intent of the parties.

The relationships between symphony musicians and their local unions have developed over many years. The level of coordination and cooperation still varies from Local to Local, but the common situation has matured into a model of shared rights and responsibilities.While many of the relationships would be envied in other labor fields, this was not always the case.About twenty years ago the AFM addressed concerns that had developed over the kind of services that were being provided by locals to their symphonic musicians.A bylaw was added that guarantees specific services to symphonic musicians.Article 5, Section 38a of the AFM bylaws provides that

“In representing members of symphonic orchestras (as defined in Article 14) for purposes of collective bargaining with their employers, Locals shall provide, at no additional expense to the members involved other than their regularly imposed Initiation Fees, periodic dues, and Work Dues, at least the following services: (1) competent representation in negotiations as the situation requires and the orchestra members may reasonably request; (2) continuing contract administration, including the handling of grievances and arbitration; (3) all reasonable and necessary out-of-pocket expenses (e.g., photocopy and telephone) incurred by the orchestra committee in assisting the Local in negotiations and contract administration; (4) the reasonable and necessary expenses of sending one Delegate to the appropriate annual Conference of ICSOM, OCSM/OMOSC, or ROPA, if applicable.”

The specific impact and interpretation of these provisions is something that every Local and its symphony musicians have developed for their own situation.It is hoped that this article will encourage an ongoing consideration of these relationships, and that symphony musicians and their Locals will continue to develop and refine dynamic and cooperative models that serve their needs.If you are an interested symphonic musician, you should be active in the process.The key to success in this joint endeavor is, and always has been, an effective combination of shared evaluation and communication.

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