The Greater Good

The Way Forward With National Media Policy

By Pete Vriesenga

pete-vriesengaThe Colorado Symphony Orchestra is at odds with our national union (AFM) over differences with electronic media policy. In recent years the CSO [along with 70 other orchestras] was signed to the AFM’s Integrated Media Agreement (IMA) which expired in the Fall of 2013. The IMA is a national agreement that covers electronic media work common to symphony orchestras such as CDs, public radio and television, but doesn’t cover commercial work such as commercial announcements, film, videogames, etc. Over the past year the CSO offered to bargain a new agreement with the AFM, but that effort seems to have failed. On broader fronts a multi-employer bargaining group was formed to represent the management side for a new national contract, but one year later a new agreement remains in the offing.

Before proceeding I should point out that the DMA (Local 20-623, AFM) is the bargaining representative for CSO musicians with respect to most matters in their collective bargaining agreement, including local media. However, the AFM is the recognized bargaining agent for the Integrated Media Agreement and all national media work. Certainly the DMA has a vested interest in seeing a satisfactory resolution to any internal union conflict, but therein lies the question.

Our local membership first learned of this conflict at our March 31, 2014 General Membership Meeting when members of the CSO shared concerns about the AFM’s intransigence over a marketing collaboration between the CSO and the Colorado Rockies. This was a local collaboration that had broad support of the musicians and a perfect example of creative marketing that orchestras across the country should capitalize on. Nonetheless, the AFM only fought management on this matter. They even fought the musicians against their will, all the while claiming to represent them.

Ultimately a resolution was passed at our membership meeting, expressing unanimous support for the CSO on three points: 1) AFM’s unreasonable delay in bargaining, 2) failure to consult the Orchestra Committee before initiating grievances against the orchestra, and 3) CSO musicians’ exclusion from contract and policy-making decisions that affect them.

These are conventional expectations for any democratic organization, but not in the AFM. One reason is the AFM has grown accustomed to setting uniform rates for 70 years. Surely the prospect of achieving genuine support for uniform recording rates across North America would be preferable, but establishing and enforcing such policy requires broad and inclusive representation that frankly does not exist in our union. Yes, the AFM is obligated to represent the interests of those who do the work, but it’s equally important to represent the interests of those who must otherwise turn the work down. That democratic model is a world apart from where we are now and would be expected if the AFM is to serve the needs of “the many.”

This is a key point of contention for the CSO because the Integrated Media Agreement only covers “symphonic” work and does not cover commercial work. Moreover, I see no visible trace of representation between CSO musicians and those who presently establish terms and conditions for work under these commercial agreements. That remains the closely-guarded and protected turf of the Recording Musicians Association (RMA) which is an AFM “Player Conference” that aggressively represents a small fraction of the AFM membership who greatly influence AFM recording policy. Despite their relatively small numbers, RMA has long demonstrated its ability to elect or unseat AFM officers who fail to follow their lead. That political will enables RMA to impose their agenda on AFM members who don’t even know RMA exists, let alone what it stands for. Consequently, RMA’s unchecked power comes at the expense of “the many” and only serves the needs of “the few.”

On the one hand I can’t blame RMA for taking all they can from a union that wrongly and feebly ceded so much power to them, but I do blame other AFM player conferences (ICSOM and ROPA, specifically) for failing to see what’s really going on here. These representational failures have taken a heavy toll on our union, so I applaud the CSO and AFM members across North America for standing up to force necessary change. Fortunately their demands for change are also being heard. In his column in the November, 2014 International Musician, AFM President Ray Hair points to “brush fires in Montreal, Vancouver, Denver, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis-St. Paul.” Fair representation, especially with respect to electronic media, appears to be a common demand.

The only way to move beyond this old and deep-rooted conflict is if our union commits to serve the ‘greater good’ and it appears that President Hair draws this very conclusion in his November column when he writes: “All previous AFM administrations faced the same institutional pressures as we do to this day – the internal struggle to balance the needs of the many, versus the needs of the few, or the one. The rise of business unionism over the past 60 years, with its culture of divisiveness and hierarchical bargaining has spawned a host of haves and have-nots in the workplace that serve the interests of the employers. This has come with a terrible cost.”

President Hair’s hope to serve the greater good is a step in the right direction, but actions speak louder than words. Whether or not the AFM then commits to doing so will be determined by the success or failure of organized protests and demands for change that are taking place in Colorado and across the AFM.

The AFM’s willingness to go to the next step by confronting “business unionism”, if true, is a very long time coming because AFM media policies have been the standard-bearer of business unionism for 70 years.  Dictionary.com defines business unionism as “the trade-union philosophy and activity that concentrates on the improvement of wages, hours, working conditions, etc., rather than on the general reform of the capitalistic system”. Sadly, that is an exacting description of the AFM’s flagship “Sound Recording Labor Agreement (SRLA)” which defines AFM media policy. The predecessor to the SRLA – the Phonograph Record Labor Agreement – was established in 1944 with Decca, Capitol, RCA and Columbia. Those four producers were arguably the only true players in the industry then, but today there are thousands of legitimate record labels and independent producers while only seven producers are actually signed to the SRLA document today. Others may come and go, and typically sign for single projects when they do.

Nonetheless, AFM members are led to believe that the 100-page SRLA is an agreement with “the industry” which therefore applies to any and all competing companies from coast to coast, no matter how small. A “Favored Nations” clause exists to this day in the SRLA that obligates the Federation to notify their signatory business partners if a more favorable deal is cut to anyone else. That little clause is an extraordinary deal for our capitalist business partners like Sony ($3 billion annual sales) and Warner Brothers ($5 billion annual sales) and is quite possibly their primary motivation to keep these “agreements” in place. When President Hair publicly assails Lionsgate ($2.3 billion annual sales) for disregarding AFM agreements, few are cheering him on more than the CEO’s of Sony and Warner Brothers. Observe the Clash of the Titans – “the few” – who already command the upper percentile and remain determined to rule the world of media.

How does this affect the great majority of AFM members who work in an economy where the great majority of employer/producers, i.e., “the industry” may only be one-thousandth the size of Warner or Sony? Does “the industry” benefit when the titans establish and set terms for small independents?
Only time will tell if our elected AFM leadership will stand up to these mega-corporations and reject old business union habits so our union can truly serve the greater good. Early indications of change for the better [or worse] will surely be found in President Hair’s reference to “brush fires.” Will these members be welcomed and encouraged for the healthy debate and necessary change they bring, or not?

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