Musicians Union: American Federation of Musicians

The American Federation of Musicians (AFL-CIO) is the largest, oldest and most powerful union of musicians in the United States and Canada. However, it is not the only union of musicians. Almost every major city in the U.S. and Canada has an AFM Local Union. Its Locals have geographical jurisdictions rather than being based on particular employment patterns.

Every musician living or working in a particular AFM Local’s geographical jurisdiction is eligible for membership, regardless of whether he is a professional, hobbyist or amateur musician. It also matters not whether a musician works as a member of a group or is its leader-employer.

As a consequence, its structure is not typical of other labor organizations. While it has changed much over recent years by instituting democratic reforms, its basic structure remains the same, and is therefore a source of continuing conflict.

Its annual membership dues are relatively low, allowing musicians of every stripe to become and remain members. However, musicians who are working as such also pay what is known as Work Dues, a percentage of their minimum union wage for a particular type of work when they are engaged. The major burden of the union’s financial support is therefore borne by the small percentage of working musicians. Whether members are, or are not, working as musicians, all have equal rights including the right to run for office and vote in elections. By far, the vast majority of the union’s members do not work as musicians.

Because the vast majority of members of the union are not working as musicians, its officers are more responsive to the needs of those non-working musicians than they are to working musicians. That is because the non-working musicians retain the power to elect or re-elect all the union’s officers.

Because the music business is so competitive, only a small percentage of those that would like to work can actually find musical employment. The AFM, however, remains a catch-all organization for all those who would love to earn a living as a musician.

Even those formerly working musicians who have retired generally retain their membership in the union. Coupled with the reasons stated above, AFM Local officers find it so difficult to carry out their duties and maintain their focus only for the benefit of working musicians.

As a consequence, many free-lance musicians who do not generally work under the terms of a collective bargaining agreement have dropped their union membership. Since the AFM as an organization has been so slow to change its old ways, it’s not likely that it will structurally reform itself in the near future.

Regardless of what has been written above, the AFM has become an effective bargaining representative for bargaining units of musicians such as those employed by symphony, ballet and/or opera orchestras and those who perform for live musical productions.

With the democratic participation of musical employees in those orchestras, AFM Locals have bargained a number of excellent collective bargaining agreements. Wages and benefits in these fields have risen substantially over the last half-century. That is a sort of dichotomy that is slowing changing the AFM for the better.