The reasons for joining Local 9-535 and for continuing one’s membership were expressed in myriad ways. Professional musicians from every genre voiced both tangible concerns (instrument insurance, pension, death benefit) and intangible considerations when asked about their sense of what it meant to be a union musician. Several members told stories of specific incidents where union officials intervened to secure payment when an employer did not live up to the terms of an agreement.
However, most players valued their membership in the musicians’ union as a strong signal to themselves and others of their commitment to quality and professionalism. Changes in the industry, working conditions and work site realities shape perceptions and opportunities to perform throughout musicians’ lives. One’s identity as a professional musician continuously evolves with every passing year, and these changes are reflected in the interviewee’s comments.
When I joined the union in 1950 I was in college, and the only way that you could play in the local symphony was if you belonged to the union. I did not have a problem, coming from a long line of union family members, so it was a natural thing. It was a way that you could, as Nat (Paella) and everybody else said, meet people. It enabled you to do what you really wanted to do, which is play music and play with high caliber people. My father was a steel worker… and they were unionizing the shipyard workers, and there were battles. I can remember my father coming home beat up. I can remember my mother going down to bail him out of jail. But all of us believed in belonging to a union, because it insured what you were going to do…Most of the unions at that time required you to audition, if you were in the musicians’ union, or pass certain qualifications, in the case of my father. All of the iron workers, steel workers – there were tests that they had to pass in order to belong to the union. You didn’t just go down there and say, ‘Well, I’m here,’ and pay your money and then you were in. I do remember auditioning down at this union hall in 1950.
I knew that if you wanted to progress you couldn’t stay non-union, you had to join the union. Everything, the big bands, the name bands, the theaters, the motion pictures, anything, you had to be union. Because if you went into a theater, all the backstage theater people were union – every union was coordinated…We had minimums in all the halls…In the Statler Hotel, the big ballroom, you’d need ten men to fill that, according to the size of the place. And we used to have to go, sometimes, not all the time, but we would designate certain times to go check (cards), police the place. We’d go in there, check who’s playing, how many men, and if there was anything wrong, write it down. We had, outside of the boardroom, a long bunch of chairs with guys there (who) were coming to get fined. We had a very, very strict union. And it was good, it was good… You had to adhere to the rules. It was good.
You hear the talk about sweatshops and all that? Well, the same thing in music. I worked on bands and different jobs, and in the nightclub you’d play a show, like with eight or nine chorus girls, a tough show, and adagio dancers and all that, then immediately you go to a dance set, then you do the show again. You’re on stage all the time, no break, no nothing. So that’s similar to the sweatshops. So the union stepped in and said ‘well, look, you’ve got to have some intermission, they’re not mechanical robots…’ The strength of the union that was very, very important. Like I say, the analogy is a sweatshop, you see?…I used to say get it on paper. You have a contract and you’ve got the protection of the union. And that’s it, it’s as simple as that, but difficult.
My work was (as) a musician. And that’s just how I feel about it. Always have. I feel there’s a solidarity there. It’s good. We should be together in a union. Actors have Equity. I have a friend who’s an actress, she’s in Actor’s Equity. And why not, of course. You don’t want to be alone doing something that you’re doing and keeping secret because you’re odd for doing it. You want to feel that others are like you and have work that they do. So it’s music. We’re musicians. That’s our work. We love it, and we want to get paid for what we do well.
The union, that’s just a device for people who do the same work to join together and improve their lot. It gives them a certain strength as a group that they wouldn’t have as individuals, I think. It’s a way of improving your life and so forth. And when I think back, I used to serve on the committee at the BSO and sit down at the negotiations for contracts every three years or so. We’d have to go through pages and pages of rules and regulations and working conditions and so forth. And one day I just happened to look at that pile in front of me and I realized that what it really was, in a way, was a response to that exploitation and being taken advantage of which many people experience, especially those in the arts for some reason, maybe even more than people in other professions. I think one of the reasons is, as Irma (Rogell) said, that we play or perform whether we get paid or not, is because we love what we’re doing. I think people sometimes cashed in on that feeling. I think this pile of regulations and these formations of unions and negotiations and so forth are a response to somehow keep things in kind of a balance, and to add strength to our bargaining power. So I don’t think of it in terms of being a laborer or worker or – I mean, in a way we’re all related because laborers and workers too are trying to improve their lot. And this, this is a way of giving you some kind of a tool that you can use to bring about some changes.
When I came out of the Navy and went into working in a business and got married, my wife didn’t marry a musician, she said. And as each kid came along we needed more money. So I played non-union for many years. But you know, working with them…you never knew exactly what you were going to get paid. There were no rules. If you went out of town you’d try to figure out, ‘well, what’s he going to pay me. He’s paying somebody else something else.’ That whole scene evaporated when a whole bunch of us, maybe around 30 or 35 musicians from that (non-union) crowd came into the union en masse… we suddenly got union scale. There were rules. . and that remains to this day…and it gave us a taste of a little more professionalism. Everybody in this whole stable of musicians decided ‘let’s go union’. I give a lot of credit to Sam Marcus, who was president at that time. He really herded them together and made it very easy to come in.
Well, the quality of the musician himself, the musicianship, the professionalism, is totally different than that of the non-union musician. In all my travels, it’s not so much a question of how much you play, or how well you play, it’s that identity of the arts. I don’t look at it as the quality, how well a guy plays, or a woman plays. If they have a card there is a distinction. There is a distinct aura about a union musician that’s totally different…And the card is the main difference in my experiences. As far as union is concerned, I didn’t look at it in terms of earnings. It’s an honor to wear that badge and have a card…
I feel the union is making some progress… I think we have an administration now that’s certainly more in touch with things. And the same thing has happened on an international basis too, at least some of them (officers) have been active musicians. They know the problems and so forth, which is so important. You get young players to pay attention when you start talking about their future a little bit. But I have to keep reminding them in a lot of senses, it’s not a police action, and that we’re willing to talk to people… It’s your future. And if you get involved, then you’ll answer the questions about whether you should be in the union or not. That’s all I can say.
Harry Ellis Dickson
The union now protects against a conductor’s whims, a conductor’s bad judgement… What changed was that we gained a little bit more self respect and knew that when a schedule was put in front of us, even for two weeks, that that would be more or less – unless there was an emergency – carried out. Most musicians have other duties; teaching and so forth. And before the union, they led a scary life. They never knew when a rehearsal would be called. So it’s made the life of a musician healthier and steadier.
Mabel Robinson Simms
It did give me the advantage of earning a decent wage. And as the scale went up, my wages went up. That made a difference in my life. Some jobs didn’t pay what I wanted, but they paid the scale, and then later on I got above scale. Oh, the days are different now, as you know. It really made a difference in my life.
When I came here (from Los Angeles) I was originally listed as a pianist, for what reason I don’t know. You’re laughing. You know. And I remember years ago I used to get a call come around New Year’s Eve, somebody’d say ‘can you play’? Ultimately, of course, I got listed as a conductor. For me, when we began to do things and we needed to do them at a high level, along with chorus, we’d turn to the union to find the really good players. In the early days we had a fair amount of assistance from the Performance Trust Fund, and that’s another thing that was very helpful to me as a conductor.
I think joining the union depends on two things. One, just how serious you are about playing music, and two, your age. Because if you’re serious, that means you’re going to be playing music for God knows how long, and you don’t know what you’re going to run into when you’re out there playing. And whatever is wrong with the union, the only way it’s going to be straightened out is by the members. And the more members you have here to do this, the better it’s going to be… and the easier it will be to change all these things that we have mentioned…
The union was like a meeting hall, as you know. There would be a couple hundred people and they’d be going around booking work and you’d pick up enough work to take you through the year. It was like a brotherhood. The older guys used to come around and say, “Hey kid, you got anything?’… ‘Nothing’. ‘Get you something.’ And they used to take care of you, remember? The reason I came into the union, I thought the musicians were better players… but the union, it was great. Bought my house, no more worries, it was like a brotherhood. It’s not like it is today. Today it’s not that way. I hope, I wish, it was.
Basically, I think America would be lost without the union. I don’t care what union it is, you’re better off (with) a union than with nothing. I was in management in Raytheon for 25 years. When I went into management, I could see the difference. A union member could sit up there and say, ‘No. Lunchtime. See you later.’ You couldn’t do that in management. You say, ‘Lunchtime,’ the boss says, ‘You want to be out the door?’ He’d say, ‘You better go to work.’ So I’m saying this, to make a long story short, you would be lost without the union, and I say that to every musician or anybody…