Power to the People
Thinking about Music at the Union Rally
I’ve heard many times that organizing musicians is like herding cats. And yes, there are reasons for the cliché. But there are also reasons why musicians form bands. Even if many are doomed to fall apart – all those cats – most of us embrace at least the idea of bands, and usually a lot of the experiences as well.
I was thinking about this while listening to Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sara Nelson of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, and Sean O’Brien of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, who came to my town for a rally this weekend. They were on something of a mini-tour - a triple bill playing Chicago, Philadelphia, Cambridge… In each city they added some local openers, and then each delivered their headline set, plus a few well-planned collaborations.
The rally was outdoors on a beautiful summer day, but the spirit was less mass festival than club show with a killer bill - the kind where you still recognize a lot of people from your particular scene, but it’s big enough that you also see a lot of new faces. It’s all those people from the other scenes in town, whose shows you don’t usually get to.
In this case, the new faces for me were the Teamsters: UPS hats, a “South Boston Viet-Nam Memorial” t-shirt, local chapter 25 logo in a green clover, and a lot of very big shoulders. I’m sure the socialist crowd with black shorts and earnest buttons were mostly new to them, too. And then there were the nurses, flight attendants, MIT grad students, Starbucks baristas… each involved in local labor fights referenced by the headliners and cheered by us all.
The message was solidarity – class solidarity - “fighting back against corporate greed.” And the audience response was loud, as loud as a rock show.
If we want to change this world, we start by organizing where capital exists – in our workplaces… Working people - when we stand together, when we have each others’ back - have the power to change this world, and get what we need. The billionaires will keep going. But even on those dick rockets that they build to go out into space while they leave the rest of us burning on this earth, even there, there are flight attendants on those rockets who asked us if we could help them unionize. We are one, and we are everywhere.
- Sara Nelson, International President of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA
Musicians have always organized in their workplaces, it’s just that we work in very small units. Bands spend a lot of time talking with one another (if they don’t, they really don’t last). And talking is organizing. We share ideas about how the world works, and how our art works in it – even if we’re just goofing, you know we’re also working it out for real. It’s micro-organizing.
Scenes – bands that are drawn to one another, fans of bands that are drawn to one another, labels that are drawn to the bands and the fans who are drawn to one another – combine to another level of organizing. Again, there’s always a lot of talk. Sharing information, sharing ideas, sharing complaints… I think any traditional workplace organizer would recognize the way music scenes coalesce and start to take on a collective direction.
But can we combine scenes, like the rally I attended was after? That’s a level of solidarity we rarely see in music, I think. Large festivals and even award ceremonies might gather multiple scenes together, but the time is brief, the situation provisional, the structure corporate and competitive. The problem isn’t really herding cats - it’s that when we find ourselves all together, we’re at a fancy cat show.
Let’s get back to the three stooges: Bezos, Musk, and Sgt. Schultz from Starbucks. There has never been a more inspiring time for organized labor, and for people to organize within their workplaces. Because of those three nitwits and their bad behavior, they’re actually helping us organize, they’re helping us mobilize, they’re helping us strategize – and they don’t know it. Because when employers treat workers bad, we – organized labor, unions – are the only option to hold these white-collar crime syndicates known as corporate America accountable. And when we organize, we strategize - especially with the Amazon, the Starbucks workers. Never been so proud in my life, to see a youth movement start to organize.
- Sean O’Brien, General President of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters
This is where organizing musicians may well have been given an accidental boost by the tech platforms that dominate our industry. Like the other clumsily rapacious billionaires eating up our economy, Daniel Ek is a gift to cat herders. Spotify’s bad faith toward musicians – all musicians – is uniting us across scenes. And just as Sean O’Brien of the Teamsters observed about Bezos, Musk and Schultz, the bad behavior of streaming corporations is making clear that we are in need of an option for holding these people accountable. How are any of us to deal with Amazon, Apple, or Google? These are some of the richest and most powerful companies on the planet. Our only choice, whether we ever thought of it before or not, is to organize in opposition.
We have the moral responsibility to be outraged when three people own more wealth than half of American society, when the top 1% are earning 45% of all incomes, when corporate CEOs are now making 350x what their workers are making… What we are seeing today is something extraordinary. We are seeing a rebirth of the American trade union movement from coast to coast. We’re talking about blue-collar workers, we’re talking about white-collar workers, we’re talking about young people, we’re talking about older people, all across the sector. Growing the union movement gives us economic power, gives us dignity, gives us respect on the job - but it gives us something more… One of the things that the media tells us every single day, it tells us through politicians, through corporate leaders, it says: think small, not big… At best maybe, maybe you’ll get a little thing. And we say: the hell with that. We’re thinking big.
- Senator Bernie Sanders
Here’s the twist that takes this big, as Bernie says. Because once we’re organizing across scenes - once we’ve enlarged our idea of solidarity in music from a single band, to a group of sympathetic bands, to all recording artists - why should we still settle for some small victory like better beer in the dressing room? Once we have a big voice, we can ask for big changes.
That’s what I heard from the union rally this weekend. At the end, Bernie quoted Woody Guthrie – well, it was more a paraphrase (“This land is our land!”) – and walked off to Plastic Ono Band.
Listening to: J Dilla, Donuts
Cooking: Wild blueberry jam
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