[Dixielandjazz] Musician's Union

John Wilder JohnWilder at Comcast.net
Sat Nov 4 01:25:25 PST 2006

Just to add my 2 cents worth about the Musician's Union.


I joined the Sacramento Musician's Union when I was a young teenager.  I was
told that when I had been a member in good standing for X number of years (I
think it was 25 years), I would become a life member and never need to pay
dues anymore.  After being in the union for about 15 years, they
retroactively changed the rule so that you not only had to be in for X
number of years but also had to be a certain age (I think it was 65).  Well,
that just wiped out my 15 years of seniority!  Soon after, they again
retroactively changed the rules so that life memberships were no longer free
- just cheaper.  All members who had lifetime free memberships now had to
start paying dues again or lose their status.


Regardless, I stayed with them, as a band leader I worked with would get
some gigs that were paid for by the Musician's Performance Trust Fund.  Then
we were told that they would be eliminating the free concerts and would now
require the organization sponsoring the concert to pay half, which
eliminated all of our Trust Fund jobs.  Still I stayed in.  On several
occasions, I called in to ask what the Union minimum would be on a job, and
there was no one there who could figure it out for me!  They all seemed to
be able to tell me how I should figure it, but none were able to figure it
for me.  They just said, "Well, you should be charging more than the minimum
anyway."  Hard to know if you're charging more than the minimum when you
don't know what the minimum is!  My friend once played a gig for which he
filed a contract and paid his dues, and then the restaurant refused to pay
him.  When he asked the Union for help, they told him that there really
wasn't much they could do, and "Just don't play there anymore." - like he
needed a Union to tell him that!


I did get a few jobs through the Union early on, and I understand that I
should feel lucky for the few I got, as many members were never sent any
work through the Union.  Then I got a job working as a musician on a cruise
ship.  I knew that while I was gone on the cruise my Musician's Union
membership would expire, so I went down to the Musician's Union office to
renew my membership.  The door was locked!  The sign on the door said Open
9-4:30, but the door was locked.  I figured that maybe I had hit them during
lunch time, so the next day I went at 3:30.  The door was STILL LOCKED!!!
For two days I called the Musician's Union phone number several times each
day, but no answer - not even an answering machine!!!


I called a friend of mine and asked what was going on at the Union.  He told
me that the guy who was running the Union had another job, and he just went
in to the Union when he had time.  I don't know how they expected to be
representing me when they weren't even OPEN during business hours!!!  Since
I never did contact anyone at the Union, I went off on my cruise ship gig
without paying the dues.  When I returned, there was a letter from the Union
saying that my membership had been dropped because of non-payment of dues.
When I called (finally got an answer on the phone after returning from the
cruise gig!) I was told that since I had let my membership lapse, I would
have to pay initiation again to get back in.  (It didn't seem to matter to
them that it was their fault that no one was available to accept the dues.)
So from that point I was an EX-UNION MEMBER for a long time.


Oh, but this is not the end of the story!!!  Many years later, a friend of
mine started working at the Musician's Union.  He called me one day and said
that he had been having trouble with one of the Union's computers, and asked
if I would come down and help him with it.  I fixed the computer and the
Union paid me for consulting.  He later called me and said that if I wanted
to be a Union member again, he could get the board of directors to waive all
of my dues in return for  agreeing to be "on call" as a computer consultant
for the Union.  I told him the whole story about the locked door, etc.  He
said, "Well, they lost all of the records from that era anyway, so they'll
never know that you used to be a member and dropped out."  I told him that
since I had been out of the Union, it had gotten to the point that about 95%
of the musicians that I work with are non-Union, so if I got into the Union
again with their rule about not working with non-Union players I would be
out of work!!!  He told me that the Union was no longer enforcing that rule,
so I decided to take him up on the offer.


I went in a couple of times when they called to fix their computer in the
next year.  At the beginning of the following year, I got a letter from the
Union stating that I am delinquent in dues.  I called my friend and reminded
him that I'm not supposed to have to pay dues.  He said, "Yes, that's right.
I'll take care of it."  He did, and soon they mailed me the current year
membership card marked "Paid".  Another year went by and I got another
letter telling me that I was delinquent paying my dues.  I was very busy at
that time, and didn't get around to calling my friend about this new letter.
Within about a month, I got another letter telling me that I was kicked out
of the Union (again) for non-payment of dues.


This time I'm planning to stay OUT of the Musician's Union unless they can
prove to me that they have drastically improved their business practices.
By the way, technically, I am still "on call" as a computer consultant for
the Union.  It says so in the minutes of their board of director's meeting,
and they never ended the agreement.  So I suppose if I needed to re-join for
something I could get them to take me back, rather than risk a law suit for
breach of contract!  However, I don't think that is going to be an issue, as
I can't see any possible reason that I would ever want to re-join the
Musician's Union.


I don't know if this helps you with your questions about the Union, but it's
an amusing story none the less.


I think my main problem with the Musician's Union is this:  If I ran the
Union and a potential live music buyer came in asking about hiring
musicians, I would say, "Come right in, sit down!  We are your friends, and
as long as you don't try to take unfair advantage of our members we'll do
whatever it takes to work with you on a mutually beneficial arrangement,
even if we have to bend the rules a bit."


However in many cases, the Union doesn't approach it that way.  (At least
they haven't in the past.)  Their attitude toward a potential music buyer is
frequently that he's immediately "THE ENEMY".  Before the buyer has even
shown any desire to take unfair advantage of the musicians, the Union treats
him as if he's on trial and throws every arcane rule, regulation and fee at
him.  I knew of one club owner years ago in San Francisco who called the
local Musician's Union and said, "I'm opening a new club.  I want to hire a
four-piece band five nights a week on an on-going contract.  But for my
grand opening celebration, I'd like a six-piece band!  The Union booked the
six-piece band and everything went well, until he called back to book the
regular four-piece band.  Now he was told, "Sorry, the minimum for your club
is six piece.  You can't hire less, or we'll strike your restaurant.  He
said that he couldn't afford a six-piece, but that he was going to give
steady work to a four-piece, but the Union wouldn't budge.  The outcome was
that he tore out the stage and put in a juke box, and no musicians ever got
any work from him.


I heard of another situation (also in San Francisco) where someone called
the Union for a Country Western band.  When the band showed up, one of the
members was an old guy who played accordion!  The buyer called and
complained to the Union that Country bands don't include accordions, and
besides the old guy didn't know any of the country tunes.  He was told,
"Sorry, he was next up on the work list, so that's who we sent."


Now I'm sure there are some Union locals who provide good service for the
dues they collect.  Certainly I don't mean to imply that any of the folks
running the Union offices today are still doing these inept and ineffective
things, but they surely have an uphill battle to convince any of us who have
been around the Union for awhile of their worth.  The long-term damage that
many of yesterday's Union officials did will not be soon forgotten.  Ask any
long-time member of the Union and I'm sure you'll get an earful of horror


John Wilder

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