United and divided

Bett Butler and Joël Dilley are among the 250 local musicians in the union. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Does the musicians' union wield power in a right-to-work state?

For people of a certain political leaning, the words "labor union" conjure images of cigar-smokin', strong-armed bosses busting the chops of scabs and skipping town with pocketsful of union dues. And for those who didn't grow up in an auto, steel, or mining town, where the union wielded bargaining power that enabled your family to get free doctor's visits and dental appointments, it might be difficult to care whether the trumpet player at Luna carries a union card.

By comparison, the San Antonio musicians' union seems pretty low-key. President Ron Noble is a bassoon player, albeit one outspoken about the union's importance to the city's professional musicians. And as far as we know, no one from the local is buried under the end zone at Alamo Stadium.

While many of Local 23's members, including most of the San Antonio Symphony and a sprinkling of jazz and country performers, have been in a union since they were precocious teens embarking on a professional musical career, that's not to say there isn't division within the local over its purpose, power, and relevance in a right-to-work state.

"There are fine players who don't see a reason to be in the union," says Noble, who joined a Chicago local when he was 18. "But unions exist to help a collective body of musicians get decent pay and working conditions. We're well-trained and we're serious."

Union members pay dues, about $35 a quarter, plus a percentage of the money they earn per gig, also known as "work dues." In return, they are guaranteed, in some venues such as the Majestic Theatre, a minimum wage for their services, plus perks for performing on Sundays, playing more than one instrument, or even hauling their own gear. Union cards issued here also are valid in other cities, including New York and Los Angeles, where the minimum pay is higher for gigs and studio work. And if a performer gets stiffed by an unsavory club owner, then the union hires lawyers to recover the fee.

Part of the performers' fee is funneled into a pension fund, and a portion of the dues goes into a strike fund, managed by the International AFM. When the San Antonio Symphony declared bankruptcy, the union dipped into the strike fund to pay a reduced salary to its unionized members for 15 weeks.

Yet, in a right-to-work state such as Texas, employees don't have to join a union in order to work. While this allows workers to choose if they want union representation, it also encourages businesses to hire non-union labor. Opponents of right-to-work laws argue that this practice lowers wages, encourages the "race to the bottom," and neuters a union's power to collectively bargain.

Although technically they're not supposed to play for less than union scale, local union members can work - and to survive they must - non-union gigs, especially at local clubs. "A lot of club agreements are done with a handshake," says guitarist Polly Harrison, who plays country, jazz, and bluegrass. "Sometimes on those you can do better than union scale. Although there are always guys coming up who aren't in the union and they'll undercut you. That's the way it works."

In other cities where organized labor is stronger, Harrison says, "you wouldn't even consider playing without a union card."

"Your music is a product," jazz bassist and union member Joël Dilley writes in an e-mail interview. "If you have a good product you negotiate from that point of view. The union sets minimum standards, but it's not a shelter for mediocrity."

Meanwhile, labor unions have been supplanted by other powerful special-interest groups. "Powerbrokers and policy makers have unions of their own: professional lobbying organizations, chambers of commerce, etc.," adds Dilley, a strong union supporter. "They band together to set standards and policy for their own benefit. Labor unions do the same."

While Ron Wilkins is a union member, he doesn't hesitate to question its relevance in a right-to-work state - or in a city that has fewer musical opportunities than Houston, Dallas, or even Austin. "I dance a very fine line between union and non-union," he says. "I wish the union here were more mobilized and stronger. I've played commercials in this town that have been running for three years and I received one paycheck.

"The more musicians that are working, the more they can mobilize," adds Wilkins, who performs at small clubs and with touring shows at the Majestic Theatre. "A studio here pulls out when they find out you're union. Whenever a place works with union scale they have to pay extra fees for the pension. The clubs say, 'No, this is how much we're paying.' My pension is miniscule."

Although Texas' laissez-faire labor climate diminishes the local union's power, in 2001, the International American Federation of Musicians scored a victory when it forced the five major record labels to pay unionized artists in their Latin divisions equal to their pop or country counterparts.

San Antonio's Michael Muñiz, director of Latin organizing for the International AFM, recalls that the inequity was significant: "When you worked for EMI you would get paid by the hour in the studio. But Tejano artists would get paid only by the song, sometimes just $50."

In the '90s, the Tejano movement, (including in San Antonio,) was immensely popular in the U.S. and Mexico. Yet, the unionized Tejano artists didn't receive pension payments; nor were they paid royalties for video performances.

After a four-year battle, and support from the Hispanic Congressional Caucus, a field hearing was held in San Antonio, where musicians testified before Congressional representatives about what was tantamount to racism by the record labels.

As a result of the bad publicity, EMI, Sony, Warner Latin, Universal and BMG signed an agreement guaranteeing thousands of unionized artists in the respective labels' Latin divisions the same pay and benefits as those in other genres. "When I go work with young musicians who are getting proper wages, they have no clue it took 10 years to get them."

Other issues face San Antonio union members, says Ron Noble, including a downturn in the number of classical recordings and "virtual orchestras" replacing live performers for theatrical shows, which occurred at the Majestic Theatre last year. The local distributed fliers to patrons informing them they would not be hearing a live orchestra.

"We need more of a presence in the community about what we do," Noble adds. "Unions have been demonized as forcing wages up, but that's not really true. Musicians should be paid fairly; someone is making a lot of money off them."

By Lisa Sorg


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