Somewhere along the way, I became vaguely aware that other countries had a very different take on this traditional holiday. Other countries used the day to showcase workers rights and labor issues. It felt very distant to me.
Today, labor rights issues are in my the front of my thoughts. I am a union member. I have been a member of the American Federation of Musicians since I first started freelancing in 1998. I feel like I'm a dying breed and it makes me incredibly sad. I can only speak to my personal experience, but without the union I would not have been able to make it as a classical musician.
When I first joined back in Houston, the union helped me connect with contractors in the area. The wage standards meant a paycheck that i could actually survive on. The credit union granted me loans for instruments when a regular bank would have laughed at my financials. Better instruments helped me improve and stay competitive as I took auditions.
I found out about these auditions through the union paper. It provides a central location for orchestras looking to hire. The union also helps to make sure the process is as fair as possible. It's not a perfect process yet, but if I'm going to invest hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars, it's nice to know that I have a decent shot.
Later in my career, I did win a job and became a tenured member of a symphony. The union helped us in our negotiations with management. A significant portion of an orchestra contract has to do with working conditions, salary is only a small portion of any negotiation. The union has helped establish industry standards for such things as onstage temperature (instruments can be damaged by extremes of heat or cold), rehearsal and performance lengths, regular breaks, etc. These are things that keep us healthy both mentally and physically.
Now I've resigned from my job to be with my husband and raise our daughter here in New York. I'm back to freelancing and the first thing I did was to join Local 802. I'm proud to carry that union card in my pocket because I know the union has my back.
I have one more thought on all this.
When I was younger, my great-grandmother told me about her youth. She was so excited on her wedding day because it meant she would no longer have to work in the textile mill. She had worked there since she was 14. Six days a week, ten hours a day of back breaking labor. This was in the late 1800's and she and the other girls who worked there had no rights and no recourse against abusive practices. Labor unions may not be perfect, but they've helped us establish a quality of life unheard of in prior generations. I think we need to remember that as we move forward.
Happy May Day