Against all trends, musicians still join union

Against all trends, musicians still join union


norman lebrecht

January 10, 2014

A visit yesterday from Professor Martin Cloonan of Glasgow University revealed an unexpected statistic. Martin, who is writing a history of the Musicians Union, came to discuss some aspects of its operations in classical music.

As we chatted, I asked about the present state of MU membership in Britain. It’s around 30,000, said Martin, and it’s remained the same since the 1960s.

That, to my mind, is a significant trend. Union membership across the UK  has more than halved, from 13 million in 1979 to six million in 2013. Over that period, the MU has maintained its numbers.

How and why is not immediately apparent. In the orchestral world, the MU has lost all of its former power and adopts a low profile. Yet musicians continue to pay their dues and, as some retire, new ones join.

Any suggestions?

musicians union


  • Is the MU affiliated with the AFofM here in the US?

    I can’t address the situation in the UK (although I’d be surprised if it greatly differed), but here, it’s more obvious, in the arts, that without unions, we’d quickly return to employers’ abusive practices that were rampant before union protections became widespread.

    Whenever I hear an artistic director complain about Equity, the AFofM, or the IATSE, almost always s/he turns out to be someone who abuses the company’s non-union employees.

    I’m not saying that the unions themselves cannot be abusive, but they do more good than bad.

  • Anon says:

    In the classical world, there is strong orchestral pressure on players to join, disapproving looks all round and a fear of being ostracised compel many to fork out.

    Outside that, many musicians earn their living as freelancers, or at least lack major employers. The MU providing standard contracts to cover a range of situations is seen as helpful (even though their legal advice service can be lacking at times even for long-term members). Possibly other benefits such as public liability insurance are also seen as desirable and worth the membership fees.

    • JJC says:

      Pressure? No, mandate. To sign a contract with a symphony orchestra in the US, you must have union membership. I know of no exceptions.

      • Leoz says:

        That’s not true. Union-membership requirements vary by state; some states don’t mandate union membership.

        • NYMike says:

          First of all, there’s some confusion here regarding Britain’s MU and the US’ AFM. They are entirely separate entities. While some US states have “right to work” (right to starve) laws, all major orchestras – even those in cities within these states – have union security clauses between orchestra members and managements. This means that a musicians must join the AFM Local in that city when becoming a member of the orchestra.

      • Anon says:

        @JJS – for clarity, I was writing about the UK, where membership is not mandatory (but, as I say, in orchestras non-membership does tend to be frowned at).

    • Stereo says:

      I left the MU as they never really did anything for the full time orchestral musician and joined the ISM,much better service and half the cost. The MU seemed more interested in the guys who did a couple of gigs at the weekend and they paid far less,but they make up the vast majority of members or did a few years ago before I retired.

  • Mikey says:

    In Canada (or at least Québec) union membership is obligatory for certain gigs. Non-union players are even forbidden from performing with union players. Unless things have dramatically changed in the last few years.

  • Bill Kerr says:

    I think it is immediately apparent why MU membership has remained at the same level for 50 years. Whilst keeping a low profile, the MU has quietly and consistently negotiated orchestra players’ terms and conditions to ensure that UK orchestras have not become unpaid amateur institutions that they would most certainly have become if the union had not been a constant presence offering protection and representation to its members. The irrational antipathy to trade unions in the UK is as unjustified and objectionable as the anti-semitism that this site quite rightly objects to. I should know how vulnerable UK orchestras are and what the MU has done to ensure their continued survival against the forces of philistinism that prevail in this country because I am the MU’s chief orchestral negotiator. There is no coercion for musicians to join the MU, just the understanding that there is no other organisation that can help , support and protect them anywhere near as well as the MU. That’s why musicians join and remain members of the MU.

  • Alan Penner says:

    “How and why is not immediately apparent.”

    It isn’t? If you had the opportunity to sign a contract that states you’ll make £xx,xxx / yr. no matter how hard you work, or hope that you get enough gigs each year to pay for your family, which would you take? Too bad most of them can’t see the forest for the trees.

  • Halldor says:

    ‘In the orchestral world, the MU has lost all its former power’. You’re serious? There speaks someone who’s never worked with a UK contract orchestra – or had to deal with the consequences when a band runs 30 seconds into overtime.

  • I once met a woman who said she was the President of the Singer’s Union, AGMA; she gave me her card. I happened to mention Nineteenth-Century labor history, but there was a gap in her knowledge about this. She was completely unaware that origin of the labor movement had anything to do with Karl Marx or Communism.

  • Tom Foley says:

    Anyone familiar with the situation of the Minnesota Orchestra will understand why musicians still join unions. The board of our orchestra here in Minneapolis is attempting to jam through very low wages, intolerable working conditions and sub-par musical standards. The musician’s union is the most effective bulwark against this. Long live musician’s unions.

  • Frederick Weiss says:

    When workers are united, they at least have the possibility of effectively dealing with management. Thus, they can secure conditions such as a living wage, compensation due to work related accidents, contracts which clearly define such things as: how many hours in a work week, when are we to be payed overtime, maternity leave, health benefits and so on. Try negotiating any of these one on one with management….I seriously doubt you will even get to meet with them.

    Over time, management has consistently shown a hostile attitude to the basic needs of employees. Check out what occurred with the coal miners strikes in the last century. Follow

    the history up to the present. Whether you work as a musician, fast food worker, assembly line, teacher,etc., it is basically the same struggle. Not having a union leaves us to depend upon the good graces of management to demonstrate a benevolent attitude toward their employees. Are you sure you’re comfortable with that?

  • Michael Haslam says:

    “When a band runs 30 seconds into overtime” says Halidor. It’s rare that it’s the band’s fault that a rehearsal or recording session overruns. It’s the job of the conductor to manage the time effectively. If, as is often the case, there is insufficient rehearsal time, that is the fault of the management for not scheduling enough rehearsal. Or maybe the orchestral contractor booked players appropriate to the budget s/he was given which meant they were lacking in the appropriate experience to get the job done in the time. You get what you pay for.

    • Here in the US, in musical theatre, ballet, and opera rehearsals, anyway, the “union clock” is mounted where all can see (usually on a music stand). When the second hand hits the twelve, the players stop, even in the middle of a measure.

    • Anon says:

      Michael – I don’t disagree that poor scheduling or conductor rehearsal technique are often to blame for potential overruns, but these tend to be bigger flaws and thirty seconds or a minute here or there aren’t going to matter. Recordings are different beasts, and just a few seconds can make all the difference.

      In my experience, the orchestral musicians who are the most vociferous about finishing exactly on time to the dot are the ones who push the breaks by two or three minutes a go, read magazines (now iPhones) during sessions and rehearsals, and chatter, all of which delay progress considerably. In the context of making a recording over six sessions, starting a couple of minutes late at the start of a session or after a break adds up to a sizeable amount of time lost which is entirely the fault of the musicians. They may not always be to blame, but they are certainly not blameless!

  • Morris says:

    During the problems surrounding Roberto Minczuk in the Brazilian Orchestral crisis a couple of years ago, you seemed to understand very well what relevance unions for musicians still have in modern society, and that with unity comes strength. Interesting that you no longer seem to understand. Perhaps some readers have marginally longer memories.

  • As the guy conducting the research on the MU history research I’d be happy to hear people’s stories about the Union, good or bad. For me the fascinating thing is that for over 120 years the MU (and its predecessor the AMU) has been or has tried to be at the centre of all the major agreements governing musicians. If nothing else its history tells us a lot abut the value which society has placed on musicians at any one moment. I’d ask you to visit and contact me via there if you’d like to. Thanks to Norman for the chat and subsequent post.

  • Halldor says:

    @Anon – quite so. It’s precisely that cynical, clock-watching, jobsworth mentality that I was trying to describe. The MU does huge amounts of good and constructive work, but small pockets of this outdated attitude do still survive, certainly in UK orchestras. In one of my first jobs, the MU steward smiled broadly as he described to me precisely how he and a group of colleagues intended to bump the session over the scheduled finishing time and trigger a payout. Which in due course they did. A long time ago now, thankfully; I don’t think that breed of 1970s throwback is anything like as widespread as it once was.