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Local 802 AFM – Leveraging The Power of Solidarity

August 7, 2012
By Joe Maniscalco

When superstar Rap impresario Jay Z decided to stage a benefit for the United Way at Carnegie Hall last February, he probably didn’t think he’d end up riling a bunch of hardworking fellow musicians in the process, but that’s exactly what happened.

Local 802 AFM President Tino Gagliardi describes the event this way, “Jay Z thought he was going to be able to come in here and hire thirty-five strings and pay everybody cash – well, that didn’t work out.”

What Jay Z apparently hadn’t realized was that attempting to pay professional musicians without a contract goes against state regulations. It took Local 802 AFM – the largest local union of professional musicians in the world – to remind him.

“I called Carnegie Hall,” Gagliardi explains. “It’s a union house. And through our efforts – and especially with Local One, I.A.T.S.E – we were able to influence them with the idea that they needed to do the right thing.”

Local 802 continues to maintain the same vigilant tempo in looking out for its other 9,000 members – musicians who work in Broadway pits, jazz clubs, cabarets, orchestras and other musical venues across the Greater New York City area.

Of major concern right now, is protecting the welfare of musicians hired to play at the Barclays Center when it debuts in Downtown Brooklyn this fall. The New arena built over Vanderbilt Yards will be home to the newly transplanted Brooklyn Nets – co-owned, coincidently, by none-other than Jay Z.

“The Barclays Center is a big concern to us,” Gagliardi agrees. “We need to find a way to maintain a union presence there as well.”

Although the local – first charted back in 1921 when it was known as the Musicians Mutual Protective Union and belonged to the National League of Musicians – often feels under attack from powerful forces unsympathetic to labor, it is finding ways for musicians to flex their collective muscles and win.

“We have a strong relationship with Local One and others,” Gagliardi says. “By working together we’re able to get the kind of leverage we need to get a sit-down with the powers-that-be.”

For instance, Gagliardi, who assumed the presidency of Local 802 in January 2010, recently negotiated a five-year deal with Cirque du Soleil at Radio City Music Hall. And he did so, from a position of strength owing largely to labor solidarity.

“It was my relationship with Local One that made that happen because I made it very clear to Cirque du Soleil that they needed to have a contract for the musicians,” Gagliardi says. “Otherwise, there was going to be a picket line. We were going to do everything we could. We were going to do what a union does to get things done.”

Today, Local 802 AFM may be a far cry from what it was in the 1980s when Gagliardi first joined the union and the rank and file numbered 20,000. Still, it remains vital and even eager to come to the aid of other unions, as it did recently during the Verizon workers lockout.

“I’m a firm believer of unions as a collective,” Gagliardi says. “If there is a cause out there that we need to be a part of, you’re going to get a band out there, and you’re going to get support.”

Back in the 1960s, when the exchange room at the Roseland Ballroom buzzed with opportunities for professional musicians, Local 802’s ranks numbered as high as 30,000. Prior to that, the membership was even larger. Union leaders point to a variety of factors contributing to the declining membership rolls, including the disappearance of casual weekend musicians who used to covet an Local 802 union card, and the rise DJs standing in for live musicians.

“To see that go down to what we have now is disturbing,” Gagliardi concedes. “It is a sign of the times.”

Recent events like the Undead Jazz Festival and Winter Jazz Festival, however, have gone a long way to introducing the local to musicians and impressing upon them the value of being in a union shop.  Other Local 802 AFM campaigns are actively advocating pensions for jazz artists and preserving live music on Broadway. [See accompanying stories].

Local 802, meanwhile, continues to draw strength from the 100,000 musicians from all across the United States and Canada who share membership in the American Federation of Musicians, as well as the 14-million-member AFL-CIO.

And despite the challenges, Gagliardi remains optimistic that through solidarity, the local will continue to gain strength.

“Historically, musicians have always tried to take care of their own,” he says.

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