RMA Address to the ROPA Conference

Omaha, Nebraska
August 5, 2010

On behalf of the Recording Musicians Association, I would like to thank you for inviting us to share in your very full agenda here in Omaha. Congratulations to Carla and the whole Board on a successful, professional and productive ROPA Conference. The RMA is always honored to be invited to participate at ROPA, and 2010 is a very special year. This year’s AFM Convention inaugurated a new day for all of us.  In a ringing mandate for unity, a dramatically new International Executive Board was elected, and we have high hopes for the future. We have an IEB that is significantly younger and more diverse, and as a Player Conference representative, I am thrilled that we have Executive Officers of the AFM who are recent Player Conference Officers themselves. Just as importantly, I am deeply hopeful that the new financial mechanism that the Convention adopted will allow my own community of recording musicians to provide increased financial support for the AFM in a way that will nurture healthy and democratic relationships. Congratulations to President Hair and all of our AFM Officers.  And congratulations to ROPA and all of our Player Conferences for providing a powerful impetus for change.

It will take time to fully digest all the changes we are going through.  At the Western Conference this spring, Ray Hair unveiled a comprehensive PowerPoint-based presentation about the history of the American Federation of Musicians. He gave an abridged version at the AFM Convention during the Southern Conference, and the response was tremendous at both events.  I learned a great deal from his research project, and I would love to see it become available to all AFM members. There are powerful lessons to be learned from the many cycles of change that our union has experienced over the years.

This AFM Convention brought home to all of us that our union is evolving in a variety of ways.  Some of the changes are represented by simple electoral math, and are easy to describe. Underlying reasons, however, can be complex, and it is dangerous to jump to conclusions.  Nonetheless, some data jumps out at us.

In 2005, there were 198 Locals represented at the AFM Convention. 197 participated in 2007, but in 2010 we were down to 169 Locals. Likewise, the number of Delegates dropped from 316 in 2005 to 273 this year.

It would be glib to assume that this shift just affected Locals of a certain size; we will want to look at geographic regions, attachment to orchestras, and other factors that may play a role in the survival of AFM Locals. For example, was a Local with a ROPA orchestra more likely to have participated in this Convention than a similar-sized Local with no resident orchestra? There are many questions to explore – the one thing we can count on however, is change.

Many of the significant changes that affect us are due to historical cycles that we cannot control.

We have all shared in the economic downturn that politicians euphemistically call a “recession”.  The economic tides that have sunk the hopes and livelihoods of so many have particularly harmed employees in both for-profit and non-profit musical worlds. Yet other trends and cycles affect musicians on an ongoing basis.

Labor cycles in adjacent industries profoundly impact the lives of recording musicians, in particular.  In the motion picture industry, the producers’ employer group openly advises studios to hurry up production a year in advance of negotiations, as leverage against possible labor actions by SAG, AFTRA, Writers, Directors and the other labor unions they negotiate with. Cycles of employment for us often follow cycles of negotiations with other, adjacent unions. There is nothing we can do to change this; it is simply part of the environment we have to manage as best we can.

Other factors can affect labor cycles for symphonic musicians. You know better than I that when an orchestra contract is renegotiated, news travels fast in management circles. Management Boards are all too frequently quick to mimic the latest and most dramatic cost-savings strategies from other orchestras. Would that they would be as quick to pursue the best models of effective fund-raising, community outreach and responsible stewardship of their cultural treasures!

Technological trends have impacted all of us. Recently we have seen HD live broadcasts of operas and symphonies, live theater and concert recording with immediate digital distribution, advancing recording hardware and software, a full panoply of new media, the collapse of the record industry, and the move from CD’s to digital distribution for all music. As our employers have access to, and are affected by, new technologies, their business practices morph, and they institute changes that can force us to redraw our own boundaries. There is no cordoning off orchestras from theaters from recording studios in the effects technological change have on all of our communities.

Political trends within the AFM have also gone through historical cycles and phases.
From different personalities in leadership roles to changing demographics both within our overall membership and within our financial and revenue structure, internal changes within the AFM have affected our union’s ability to be responsive to the evolving challenges musicians face in the real world. Sadly, in the recent cycle of AFM history our ability to adapt to changes in the business practices of our employers was hamstrung by internal division.

We have just emerged from a period where the rank and file players expressed their needs and desires through their Player Conferences, only to frequently feel shunted aside and marginalized. This led to a new era of activism by musicians in many different areas.

From appointments of Pension Trustees, access to decision making about staffing levels, the hiring of staff and the imposition of contracts, to the lack of transparency about the inner workings of our union, all of us together faced difficult times in ways that only compounded the economic woes that have beset so many.

Yet we persevered. We continued to try to articulate our needs, to communicate with our constituencies, and work with both Local and Federation Officers in order to accomplish our goals. The positive changes in the AFM are due in no small measure to the dedication demonstrated over the course of years by Player Conferences and rank-and-file musicians. We should all feel proud of having worked tirelessly, with our members, with our Locals and with the AFM, to provide a direct and effective voice for the rank-and-file musicians in our fields.

One lesson from all of this seems clear – we have to always be activists.

As musicians we need to remember that we are both artists and workers, activists both within our union and in the world at large.  We cannot afford to stop working on behalf of our musical colleagues, nor can we afford complacency about the future of our union. I know I am preaching to the choir here.

From licking and stamping envelopes, to showing up at meetings, volunteering for committees, running for election and traveling far from home, everyone in this room has gone the extra mile. Each and every one of you has sacrificed, not in order to help yourself as an individual, but to better the lives of your colleagues and your community. Each and every one of you has taken time out of your practicing, nurturing family members and friends, having fun for yourselves…all the bricks and mortar and baling wire of our daily lives. You have done so in order to help construct a larger, better home for all of us, and I salute each of you.

Effective activism begins with our members, and I am convinced that real change generally moves from the bottom up. In the great movements of the last century, from the transformative Federal programs of the New Deal, to the civil rights and peace movements, great leaders emerged, but change was brought to the doorstep of elected leaders by ordinary everyday people. Millions joined these movements,  and drove real change with the assistance of labor unions and other organizations that helped educate them, organize them, and helped them learn how to help themselves and their communities.

This, then, seems the prime directive from our history. We cannot afford to stop communicating with our members, educating and organizing our members for activism.  I know all of us here share the frustrations that come from hometown complacency – colleagues not showing up at meetings, not responding to emails, not voting. One thing history teaches us is that that’s not new; organizers have been bedevilled by apathy from the beginning of time. Moses would hardly have needed to bring tablets down from the Mount if everything was going so great with his folks back home. Yet perseverance is power; even in the face of overwhelming odds, the result of ongoing internal organizing will always be good for our union, and good for our members.

I believe we hold in common a vision of an AFM that truly engages with its rank and file, and organizes internally for progress.  We are only as strong as our members, and the AFM has truly remarkable members.  Each of you here today represent a priceless resource, a body of knowledge, willing hands and hearts and minds that can and should be put to full use by the AFM.  Communicating openly and transparently, abiding by healthy institutional processes and relying on the creativity of our extraordinary group of members will help the American Federation of Musicians become the union we want it to be.

I hope you share my excitement about the new AFM world we find ourselves in.  There is no question that we face great challenges, but we also have great dreams, and we look forward to working together to help them come true. Thank you  so much for your time and kind attention, and I congratulate you on a full and productive Conference.

Marc Sazer
Secretary, RMA