Is the AFM bullying Canadian musicians?

Is the AFM bullying Canadian musicians?


norman lebrecht

May 29, 2014

This just in from Ed Henderson in Vancouver.



AFM in NYC fines the entire Vancouver Executive Board 50K each

A letter from the New York based head office of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) arrived today. The postmark said it was sent two weeks ago. The International Executive Board (IEB) of the AFM charges me and eight other former board members (and one staff member) of the Vancouver Musicians Association (VMA), with a bylaw infraction. In two weeks we are to defend ourselves before the same IEB that is charging us, the same IEB will pass judgment upon us and, as the letter states, the same IEB promises the most extreme punishment possible: expulsion from the AFM (meaning no chance to work again on any AFM gigs: Symphony, CBC, Opera, Chilliwack band, record sessions, solo concerts, theatres across the country etc… – all of which have been my livelihood for the last 40 years) and a $50,000.00 fine for each of us. They will win (how could they lose in their own court?) and they see that as an easy 500K, which they desperately need.

Prosecutor, judge, jury, deliverer of punishments and collector of fines all in one body based in New York – a body that maintains full control of the Canadian Federation of Musicians offices and claims ownership of all Canadian locals. And they get most of our dues too.

Why are they so vicious? That Vancouver had the audacity to negotiate a contract. A contract based on an already existing Canadian film and TV contract, which had been in constant use for twenty years. The new members of the IEB want nobody to use the Canadian contract and added restrictions to it making it unusable. We negotiated a contract to replace what the IEB denied us and as a result: VMA trusteeship.

The VMA has been in trusteeship for almost one year. In the six months prior to the trusteeship VMA members working in film earned a combined total of about 175K – six months after… zero, nada, ziltch. It’s now just shy of one year and still… zero, nada, ziltch. The IEB granted itself its wish: that there be no union film work in BC.

Film is a serious industry in BC (around 1.5 billion a year) yet local musicians, prior to the trusteeship, accounted for less than 2 cents of every $1,000.00 spent on film in BC. With such wonderful musical talent in BC does this make any sense? Not to me but, the AFM told us they’d rather we worked non-union – to quote their lawyer speaking last month in the BC Supreme Court.

The AFM has gone from 300,000 members in the 1980’s to around 70,000 today (a greater proportion of those losses occurring in the USA). Could this be because of actions such as those current against Vancouver? Perhaps there are other reasons too. I don’t know a film producer today who will sign an AFM contract – I used to know some but now they all refuse to put their names on an AFM document and that is a shame for all Canadian musicians.

And, all I can say is Oh, Canada – my home and native land! I want my CFM back in control of Canadians who are interested in Canadian concerns and not in pleasing the IEB. As I said, the IEB will win in their court and see it as an easy 500K. I see this as the end of the AFM for which, all musicians will lose.


UPDATE: Ed adds on his FB page: Dues from Canada go to New York and they pay the staff and expenses of the Canadian office (and NY rules the CFM staff as well). Canada is the only country in the world with a musicians association controlled by people in another country – that is crazy. If I had known that when I joined, in 1973, I would not have joined.


  • Alex says:

    The AFM has not left Canadian musicians a choice in this matter. They have not shown the slightest interest in negotiating, or really even in behaving like reasonable, decent people. At this point, there is no other option for the CFM other than to separate from the AFM and rebuild itself somehow.

    Perhaps this is something that should have happened years ago. It’s absurd and shameful that Canadian musicians are losing out on valuable opportunities because our American ‘masters’ want to keep those for themselves.

    And let me tell you, there won’t be a place in the new Canadian Federation for nasty AFM thugs like (current Vice President from Canada) Alan Willaert, either.

  • Emil Archambault says:

    The Quebec Guild of Musicians is currently preparing for a referendum to leave the AFM as well. The AFM is threatening to take over the Quebec section and potentially seize all the Union’s assets, should the referendum not be conducted according to the AFM’s rules (which include that the final decision be taken by the executive board and the referendum be only advisory).

  • Andy says:

    Where is Governor Scott Walker when he’s needed? From 300,000 to 70,000? Why would anyone want to stay on a sinking ship, especially one that’s overrun by rats? Unions are clueless mobs where weaklings flourish. Smarten up and start a-bustin’. Self-determination is the road to success. Unions are dinosaur colonies. They had their time on earth, but their usefulness has become dubious at best. Just laughable.

  • Larry says:

    Don’t feed the troll.

  • Larry says:

    While I can see how the AFM in New York are acting like uncaring thugs to its Canadian affiliates, their behaviour is reprehensible, fining unpaid local representatives/volunteers and barring them fro their lively hood is disgusting and inexcusable. That aside, I don’t believe separating from the largest collection of musicians in North America would be beneficial to Canadian AFM members either. There has to be another answer. The principal goal of a union must be to maintain minimum working conditions, this does not mean creating work for its members. The minute a local negotiates a lower rate for work, it embarks on a race to the bottom that hurts all musicians. Aren’t we paid little enough already?

    • Alex says:

      I’d rather be paid a little than the nothing we get from the AFM.

      I don’t know why they don’t understand this. The work’s already gone! It went to Europe and Seattle and whatever other place is willing to price itself competitively. What’s wrong with wanting a piece of that?

      Sometimes divorce is the only answer. Who wants to be married to a proven bully? I don’t.

      • Larry says:

        So to be competitive with with Eastern European orchestras, you would be willing to be paid roughly a fifth of what you would normally get? That sounds like a fairly bad deal. There comes a point where I’d rather stay home, or find another source of income, than to work for less than fair wages. There is an interesting article on this very issue –

        Like I asked above, aren’t we paid little enough already?

  • NYMike says:

    The N. America’s musicians union official title: American Federation of Musicians of the United States and Canada. Its bylaws are written and signed on by ALL locals at the AFM’s triennial convention – INCLUDING Vancouver Local 145.

    What I see here is the typical whining and hand-wringing when a local union negotiates an underscale agreement contravening the bylaws and national media agreements that it has signed on to and is fined and trusteed for doing so. These national (international) media agreements are meant to insure that individuals and locals do not engage in the proverbial “race to the bottom.” Obviously, Henderson and friends have forgotten what belonging to a union is supposed to mean.

  • MacroV says:

    Lots of mixed feelings here. As a strong union supporter, I don’t like the idea of musicians being played off against each other. OTOH, getting 100% of nothing seems foolish.

    I was able to observe fairly closely the late-1980s decision of Seattle Symphony musicians to depart the AFM for their own union – the International Guild of Symphony, Opera and Ballet Musicians. Which to my knowledge remains, even to this day, largely a Seattle entity. Their beef was largely that the AFM local was relying largely on their for membership dues, but not really representing them very well. But they also wanted to record in order to enhance the orchestra’s reputation, and AFM rates made them uncompetitive; the AFM media rates basically protected the Big 5. So they formed their own union, negotiated their own CBA with management, which apparently included a lower recording scale (same as their normal per-service rate). You’ll have to ask them how it’s working. Playing for film is, admittedly, a different issue, since the film producers are pretty much just seeking a lowest-cost commodity. And I am one of those people who is also very annoyed with the Canadians for giving all sorts of tax breaks to film producers, using those, rather than just the beauty of Vancouver and Toronto and Tim Hortons to lure them away from California.

    • NYMike says:

      Your Seattle SO take is skewed – recording was not in question at the time of their break from Local 76, AFM. When their orchestra committee asked then AFM Pres. Marty Emerson to trustee their Local for non-representation, he took the side of the Local’s administration – usual in those days – despite being advised by his own Symphonic Services Director not to do so.

      Film scoring only came later when they established their own below-AFM rates. Competing with the “Big Five” in symphonic recording was never their aim when they formed IGSOBM .

  • NYMike says:

    Under today’s AFM administration, this would not have happened.

  • Fredelin says:

    Since when a FOREIGN UNION should prevail in Canada?????
    That DOES NOT exist in any other work field! That is Absurd.

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  • Paul Davis says:

    Of COURSE the AFM has bullied musicians and even music students into a period of decline. Let Hair continue to do bizarre stuff that causes musicians to stay out of the Union, cause states to pass more “right-to work” (ha) laws, and when the membership goes down another 50%, perhaps THEN will the AFM realize (gee, you think we’re maybe strong-arming it too much?