On Unions

On Unions

I am a member of two labor unions: The Association of Pleasanton Teachers and the American Federation of Musicians Local 6 (I play trombone).  In the last few months, I have been synthesizing some of my experiences where I have observed the importance of unions, and also their potential negative side effects.  I would love to hear what my friends and colleagues have to say about some of my jumbled thoughts.

Musicians’ Union

It seems that every time I do a non-union gig, something weird or unusual happens.  Something as little as making announcements during my warm-up time, being asked to show up and hour early (without overtime) before a concert for some last-minute rehearsal (I said no), or being told the wrong start time, and consequently staying at a church service for an hour after the stated end time.  (I stayed, and received no extra compensation for my time.)

All of these stories come to mind when I agreed to play for free at the church I attend with  my family this Easter.  When I said yes to my church, I felt like  tried to check my “union” attitude at the door and wanted to serve Christ’s church however I was needed.  Then I received the first e-mail about rehearsal times.  4 hour rehearsal on Tuesday, 2 1/2 hour rehearsal on Saturday, call time an hour before the 8:00 first service.  My part in all of this consisted of playing five 3-4 minute long tunes, about 20 minutes of music total.  My union sensibilities crept back into my mind.  Much of the rehearsal time was spent with the vocalists working out parts around the piano.  My thoughts were 3 fold:

1) If I were being paid and hourly rate, they would have had me come 2 hours later during the 4 hour rehearsal, and rehearsed the vocal stuff without me.

2) There are many people in the church who donate much more of their time and expertise than I do, and that humbles me.  We are currently without a music pastor, and many lay musicians are maintaining the high quality of our program.

3) I am glad I brought a good book to read.  (I am an orchestral bass trombone player, I know how to come prepared!)

On Sunday, I am embarrassed to say, I arrived a couple of minutes after the 7 AM call time.  No need to worry, as rehearsal as far from commencing.  the first thing that was rehearsed, at 7:20 once all forty musicians were in place, was a vocal solo accompanied by a single keyboard.  This went on for about 10 minutes or so.  After 7:30, the whole ensemble did a sound check for a couple of minutes.

In contrast, when I arrive at a union gig, it almost always starts and ends on time.  Announcements are made after the clock has begun.  They are brief.  On the rare occasion that service goes overtime, I (and everyone else) get compensated.  Our time is given a great deal of respect.

Teachers’ Union

This brings me to my membership in the teachers’ union.  In the 1980s the teachers in Pleasanton went on strike to demand more respect of their time, their professionalism and of course, to demand more money.  Teachers are constantly being asked to do things that are not in their contracts.  Much like the requests made of me at a non-union gig, teachers are asked sometimes to go on overnight field trips, spend non-paid hours filling out detailed report cards, bring home essays to correct, etc.  In this context, I bring up that Pleasanton teachers were recently asked to work 2 fewer days and take an equivalent pay cut for the upcoming school year.  For teachers who had gone on strike to gain the pay, benefits and respect that we current teachers enjoy, this was  a tough pill to swallow.  The pay cut would preserve programs for students, and jobs for our fellow union members.  How responsible for providing programs to students are teachers?  Are we entirely responsible, and should we carry a burden for a large chunk of the budget cuts through a cut in salary?  (We would be providing a tremendous benefit to the community at no additional cost to the community.)  Are we somewhat responsible or not at all?  I found myself solidly on the side of “take the small pay cut for the good of our students and the teachers that were given lay-off notices (pink slips) for next year”.  I had trouble understanding why any teacher would be again saving programs within our district.

The Connection

I had a better understanding as to how some of my teaching colleagues could vote against taking a pay cut to preserve programs after this recent Easter.  Since I was not being compensated for my time, it was easy for those in charge not to use it efficiently.  If I don’t say to my church, “You can’t do that again next year, or I am not playing,” then they have no incentive to be more time efficient.

Similarly, if teachers simply say, “Don’t cut programs!  Take some of my money!” this will automatically become the first choice for fixing budget problems.  Other solutions will be skipped and avoided.  It was remarkable to me when a young pink-slipped teacher voted NO to this pay cut, when he of all people had something to gain (the likelihood of his job).

I have been bouncing back and forth on these ideas.  If you carry the “no cuts for teachers ever” idea too far, you can end up hurting students by allowing programs to be cut and newer teachers to be laid off.  If you offer and inch in pay cuts today, you might be asked for a mile tomorrow.  I am trying to find a balance between these opposing concepts.

Where We Are Now

The teachers in Pleasanton agreed to forego 2 days worth of salary and we will have a 2 day longer Summer… IF the communty matches our efforts.  We traded less money for more time (furlough).  The caveat is that the community has to come through as well, and a parcel (land) tax that will be put to the voters in Pleasanton on June 2 has to pass for the teacher 2-day furlough to occur.  I like this approach because it ensures that everyone in the community will sacrifice, not just the homeowners and not just the educators.

40 thoughts on “On Unions

  1. michael lee

    Welcome to the blog, Jason. I haven’t read the post yet, just wanted to say I’m glad you passed the rigorous interview process and were hired on as one of our fabulous contributing authors.

    OK, now up to the top to read the post.

  2. Stick

    Nice post!

    I’m thinking about starting a union for self-employed record producers in the great Auburn, CA area. Mostly we’ll be demanding more days off to play golf. And maybe ski. In the winter, of course.

  3. Adam S

    I have never worked for a union, but my wife is a teacher and I have seen the good and bad through her. I also have worked with many churches (that being my job, first as a denominational staff and now as an independent consultant). Your points are right on the money.

    Teacher’s Unions need to see themselves as protecting the profession, not just individual teachers. But at the same time I see principals abusing their power frequently and without a union there is almost nothing that can be done. Some might argue this happens in non-union businesses all the time, but in non-union businesses you go work for the competition if your boss is a jerk. If you work for a large school system and you leave one school you may be blackballed from working at another even if you left because of a known bad principal.

    Churches often abuse their employees because they think they are working for “The Lord” so who cares how badly you treat them. Christianity Today had an article about the fact that many church employees that are getting laid off (fired) because of economic concerns are really screwed over because the churches that they worked for didn’t pay into the unemployment system and they are not only without a job, but also without unemployment elegability. This violates the agreement that churches have for their exemptions (that they would care for their employees if they are laid off) but many churches would rather save a few dollars by not paying into unemployment rather than follow the letter of the law (by paying unemployment or by only being exempt if you agree to make provisions for staff that maybe come unemployed) or the spirit of the law (actually caring for your employees regardless of whether you pay into the system or not.)

    For me this is a matter of integrity. Churches shouldn’t need outside groups to tell them to be good to your employees (either unions or unemployment agencies). But we do need this.

  4. Rach

    “The caveat is that the community has to come through as well, and a parcel (land) tax…has to pass… I like this approach because it ensure that everyone in the community will sacrifice, not just the homeowners and not just the educators.”

    Wow, that’s a good socialist/collectivist attitude. I am quite happy I do not live there.

  5. Jon

    Wow, 3 comments in a row from me. Sorry, I meant to type collectivist instead of communist. That’s what I get for trying to multi-task at night.

  6. sharolyn

    This is the first proposed tax that I have ever really liked. Here’s why.
    -It stays in our community, serving only the needs of our children. “If we don’t stand up for children, then we don’t stand for much.” -Marian Wright Edelman
    -If it is worded on the ballot, the voters are by law guaranteed it for the next four years (counselors, class size reduction, etc.)
    -It is illegal to use the money for anything not listed on the ballot
    -The money will be handled by a group of educated citizens who are not employed by the school district
    -It is a small investment that will reap exponential financial rewards in terms of home equity. (What I am trying to say is, if we let programs die, fewer people will want to live in the community.) Even the most selfish homeowner with no children in the system would benefit from a $233/year sacrifice in tens of thousands of dollars in home value.

  7. Jason Post author

    Rach, I am quite happy you don’t live here as well. I won’t hold my breath waiting for your suggestions at solutions to this problem.

  8. michael lee

    I would guess that Rach’s proposal starts quite a bit earlier than this conversation, and takes up the issue of whether or not ANY education should be publicly funded.

  9. sharolyn

    That sounds like a whole other blog. One which I would be interested in reading, truly. I won’t throw tomatoes. I promise.

    Rach, I think you would enjoy living here. It is a pretty incredible place. And the tax hasn’t passed yet. We need a 2/3 majority to succeed, so you very well may get your wish.

    Rach, also I appreciate your putting your name to your thoughts. What has really bothered me in this process is that most of the bloggers and interviewees on the news who are against this measure do not have the courage to show their faces (the ones whose kids we daily serve).

    The other day I had oral surgery, and I’m pretty sure I told the surgeon and his nurse about all of this while I was drugged up and loopy. I say this laughing at myself, and also to point out that it is hard not to let it consume me. (I think that means it did.)

  10. michael lee

    I think the best thing about unions in creative environments (both music and teaching count) is that it sidelines the punch-counterpunch of salary and work environment negotiation, removes it from the relationship between the manager and the creative workforce.

    Stepping into a recording session where all of the bargaining about pay, benefits, work expectations, etc. have already been handled by somebody who is NOT me, allows me to come in as just a musician. I don’t have to bring the bad blood of the money fight with me into the studio.

    At the same time, and here is where the teacher’s union has drifted from it’s purpose I think … any time you start to concentrate power, any kind of power, you run into two big problems.

    First, accumulated power is an irresistible temptation for those who have an agenda to pursue. Accumulated power means you don’t have to change the minds of 500,000 people, you just have to change the minds of the 5 people who are custodians of the accumulated power of the 500,000. When that happens, you get things like the California Teacher’s Association spending $1.25 million of their member’s union dues on the “No on Prop 8″ campaign, against the overwhelming objections of the union members.

    The second problem is that once power has been accumulated, the tendency of the controlling body is to preserve and expand that base of power, even in ways that violate the original intent of the power. When unions vigorously oppose things like merit pay, a sensible tenure system, and the ability of administrators to remove incompetent teachers from the classroom, those moves are done to preserve the accumulated power of the union, not because they serve the profession of teaching.

  11. Daniel Semsen

    I always, ALWAYS start and end my rehearsals on time in order to let people know I respect them–whether paid musician or volunteer. Always.

    Thank you, Al Clifft for that one…

  12. sharolyn

    Mike, I agree with you totally. I experienced conflicting feelings of outrage, powerlessness, and betrayal when CTA spent dues on “No on Prop 8″… regardless of how I voted on Prop 8. That was unquestioningly unacceptable. Much like the pork in the bailouts (the “bridge to nowhere”, for example), I don’t know how to personally fix that.

    So far (regarding this blog) I had only been thinking about “APT”, the Association of Pleasanton Teachers. I actually feel like I can make a difference when it comes to local politics. Right or wrong, that is more my niche.

    About this measure specifically that Jason addressed in his last paragraph, we have the most to lose personally of anyone I know – about $3,000 over the next four years. (Furlough days x 2 teachers) + (parcel tax x 4 years). And yet I am ALL for it. If it doesn’t pass, there is no part of me that will feel, “Phew, we could really use that $3,000″ (although of course we could). What it has the potential to become, when pooled with my 70,000 neighbors, is invaluable.

  13. Jason Post author

    Mike, I thank you for doing a better job than I of pointing out some of the flaws in unions. I got a little side tracked when I began speaking about our local issue. I agree with Sharolyn that we have a bigger impact at the local level. I have spoken several times with the elected Pleasanton teacher’s rep and have felt very listened to, and I felt like my opinions mattered. The fact that I don’t think CTA should have donated to either side of prop 8 seems irrelevant. Sad.

    Onto some other flaws you pointed out.

    Merit pay – It is hard to create an objective system for this. I think that I would probably benefit from a merit pay system, not because I deserve it for the great teaching that I do, but because I teach in a great community that strongly supports and is involved in their kids’ education. I think this might punish teachers who teach in less affluent schools and could worsen the gap between wealthy and poor schools. Teachers would move to where the “merit” is. Merit pay in other states led to teachers cheating on kids tests, which was one of the stories told in the book Freakonomics by Steven Leavitt and Stephen Dubner.

    I understand that the system of teachers getting the same pay within a given district, regardless of productivity, leads to no incentive to do well, but most teachers (not all) work pretty hard without an extra monetary reward.

    Tenure – I am not aware of stories from the education world, but there is a retired orchestral pro in the bay area who was fired from one of his positions in a major symphony for demanding that the conductor be civil to the orchestra. In the pre-tenure era of his time, this was the conductor’s prerogative. From that extreme comes tenure, to protect teachers and musicians and anyone else from unfair management decisions. I think most everyone would agree that an incompetent teacher should be removed, (except perhaps the incompetent teacher) but how do you define incompetent is another matter all together.

    To quote a friend of mine, “Unions are only as infallible as humans are.”

  14. Adam S

    Merit pay already exisits by default. According to a University of Chicago study looking at Chicago Public schools teachers that were objectively ranks a proficent (whether the ranking really work or not is another issue) were overwhelmingly at upper income and low minority schools. Teachers that were ranked poorly were at high poverty, high mobility, high minority schools. Same study said that if you take the same student and put them with a high quality teacher for three year then compare them with a student that was from the same socio-economic background and same academic level but had low quality teacher for three years in a row there was more than 1 and a half years difference in their end academic result. So teachers may not get extra money but the do tend toward better teaching situations.

    Those upper income schools didn’t pay their teachers more, but the parent organizations raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for extra materials, field trip, etc. Low income school teachers paid for more stuff out of their own pocket. I had a friend that taught at a low income school in Chicago and was allowed one ream of paper a year and no books.

  15. nick

    My experience has been a little different. In Texas, we have what is called the Robin Hood program where “rich” districts have to give money to “poor” districts. Also, if a school has a certain percentage of kids on free and reduced lunch, they receive extra funds.

    For example, when I was teaching at a district that has a low socioeconomic level, I noticed that the technology at my school was second to none. I assumed that all districts were like this. The teachers get a new desktop computer every 2 years, and if you stay long enough you get a laptop computer.

    The district where I teach now has hardly any technology (even though we’re graded every year for using technology in the classroom on our appraisal). I have an old computer, and we don’t have any computer labs that can be used for anything other than computer classes. We can’t even give the kids opportunities to type papers at school. That’s what you get when you teach at a “rich” district.

  16. Zack

    Whoops. I thought we were gearing up for a lynching. welcome, Rach!

    (Note to self: Do not post on Addison Road while drunk)

  17. Jason Post author

    It would be best if we backed up in this conversation to a point where we can find common ground. Every baby should be fed, especially sick ones. All in favor say “Huzzah!”

  18. Zack

    Meh. I know a few people who should go without a meal or twelve, Jason. Oh, BABIES! Oh yeah, babies should get to eat. Like, as much as they want.

    My bad.

  19. sharolyn

    You know, I’ve thought more about it, and maybe I’ve changed my mind. I want my money. This “educating children” thing has gone way too far.

  20. michael lee

    Sharolyn, I don’t think anyone is arguing against educating children. I think many people might argue against the public obligation to educate children.

    Some believe that education the obligation of the parents, and not a shared social burden. I have a hard time agreeing with this. The risk posed by an uneducated populace to the peace and progress of a culture is a very high price to pay for shifting the burden back to individual parents. The benefit of an educated populace is shared by everyone, and returns a strong multiplied value for the money initially invested.

    Others (and I’m inclined to agree with them) might argue that public education is a mass production model, ill-suited to the goals we ask of it, and an irresistible temptation for those with pedagogical and ideological axes to grind.

    I would like to see a system that preserves the individual discretion of the parents in how they want to educate their children, but distributes the cost burden across the community. Vouchers seem to be a feasible way to preserve both goals.

  21. Chad

    1. I like Rach. :)

    2. I belong to two unions, SAG and AFTRA. I have personally been on the receiving end of all sorts of tomfoolery on non-union gigs. I have felt ripped off on non-union gigs. “Living Spaces,” springs to mind, a situation where the options were either accept the buyout, or be replaced and not be paid at all. That ad has been played thousands upon thousands of times in the greater Los Angeles area.

    3. I have also been on the receiving end of tomfoolery on union gigs. I’ve learned it’s less about the almighty union, and more about how good your union rep is at cracking the whip. I got all sorts of jerked around on HSM3 until I yanked the chain right back on The Mouse, and got what I deserved. I was my own union rep on that one.

    4. What Jason has described about his church experiences is the sort of tomfoolery that causes unions in the first place.

    The best compliment I ever recieved from a hired player was recently. We’re at a BIG church now, and they expect big sounds and tight sets, which is a fair expectation, IMO. I still believe that, barring a difficult or intricate special, 90 minutes is plenty of time to rehearse a worship team that has ANY semblance of how to do their thing.

    Rehearsal started at 7pm, and we were walking out the door at 8:35. The drummer (our only hired gun that week) said, “Man… you guys know how to run a rehearsal!”

    I abhor wasting people’s time.

    Amusingly, many worship pastors would have to get on their game if a “Local Church Volunteer Musician’s Union #606″ ever sprung up. Because chruch is unregulated, it’s a total crapshoot as to any sorts of standards and expectation. It’s totally relational and dependent on the individual.

  22. Chad

    Oh, and for the record…

    My daughter is in public school kindergarten, and will remain in public schools until public schools present an immovable barrier, at which point we will have no problem putting her somewhere else.

    Thus far, our brief public school experience has been outstanding. I know that this is not the case for many parents, but it has been for us.

  23. sharolyn

    Thoughtful responses, Mike and Chad.

    Perhaps what I meant to say earlier is that, because of issues that are dental in nature, I have not had a satisfying eating experience in five days, so present me with your injustice, because I am ready to kick someone’s ass! The rationale is going out the window and sarcasm is ready to fly right out of my empty mouth!

    And, back to unions…

  24. sharolyn

    Also, I trust everyone on this blog to respectably educate their children, but there are a whole lot of Americans ill-equipped to do so, and their kids deserve the same opportunities as their peers. (Which I think you said, Mike, only you sounded a lot smarter.)

  25. Zack

    2:23am…just drunk enough to post. :) Here we go!



    PS – no drinking and inter-web-tubes. Agreed.

  26. Pingback: Taxation and Unions « Music Ed Lounge

  27. Stengel99

    Hi Jason and Mike,

    What a great article. Very thought provoking. Some thoughts:

    First, regarding the parcel tax:
    1. I would reluctantly vote for the tax if I lived in Pleasanton.
    2. The administration has successfully shifted the burden of maintaining the programs to you and fellow teachers. “If you want to keep your job/this program, you’re going to have to convince taxpayers to fork up the dough.” As teachers, we need to find more effective ways to shift that burden back to administrators and legislators. We need to let them know that if they won’t fund these programs, we will appoint someone who will.
    3. There is an inherit danger with funding programs through special taxes. What happens in four years if the public is no longer willing/able to pay extra?
    4. The thought of cutting high school football is unthinkable. We need to figure out how to make that true for music programs. What do they have that we don’t have? What are they doing that we aren’t?
    5. District and community leaders need to consider what a community without these programs would look like. One of the schools where I teach has a very bare bones program with very few special activities. They begrudgingly have a music program because they required to. Just about everyone there is miserable, and test scores aren’t necessarily improving.

    Regarding the union issue:
    1. I was once a member of a church that supplemented its orchestra with union musicians for Christmas and Easter. Those rehearsals were run efficiently, while many of the normal week-to-week rehearsals were often run inefficiently.
    As a university-trained musician, I remember feeling somewhat ripped off knowing others were paid for their minimal work, while I was not. My consolation was that God knows everything, and my reward is in heaven. See Matthew 20:1-16.
    2. I wonder why people with certain skills expect to be paid for their work at church while people with other skills are not. (I’m not confronting you, just reflecting on your feelings which I share!) The CPA who manages our church finances is not paid. Deacons and Elder boards often include successful people with degrees in business and administration, but they are not paid. Why do we musicians feel ripped off when we are not paid?
    3. Regarding the teachers’ union, I currently know of an incompetent teacher whose job is being protected because he’s in the union. I also know of another teacher who was wrongfully accused of misconduct, and her job is being protected as well. It’s hard to hear her story and without thinking, “That could be me.”

    Regarding the relationship between the two issues:
    1. As a naturally passive person, I am realizing the importance of activism. The squeaky wheel gets the grease.
    2. You and the other musicians could write or talk to the leader of the church service and tell him or her your feelings.
    3. You could lower your expectations of the process and choose to stay involved anyway in the interest of ministry. Sounds like to an extent, you already have done so by bringing a book for those wasted minutes.

  28. Rach

    Thanks Mike and Chad, for the shout-out.

    Sharolyn, you are right, I probably would enjoy living there, because then I could hang out with you and we could chat more about stuff over coffee!

    However, I have no proposal for you that would result in an outcome that you and other public school teachers would like. Sorry. These are tough economic times for everyone, and teachers are not immune any more than other professionals (many seem to think so, though). It sucks.

    My personal choice regarding education as parent of four, however, is to jump out of the burning building while I still can– which includes home-educating my children for the time being.

  29. Eric

    Mike, et al.

    I, too, believe that education is a shared social obligation, but one which currently has no ideal solution. It sounds as though CA has the same educational model as MA, which means that schools are funded by local property taxes, so there are vast differences in the quality of education in wealthy towns and poor ones. Massachusetts also has a law requiring each school district to provide maximum benefits and services to special education students, up to and including individual personal aides and full tuition and transportation to private schools if their needs cannot be served within the public school model. There has been quite an increase in students seeking special ed services, and it represents a significant portion of the school budget in many towns. I don’t want to deny opportunities to any student, but it’s a grossly inequitable distribution of scarce resources.

    My wife has taught strings in one of the wealthier MA school districts for almost 20 years. During her tenure the high school orchestra has grown from 18 players to two orchestras with about 85 string players in each (and winds as needed for the repertoire). Still, every day is a struggle. While special ed students receive one-on-one instruction in a full-sized classroom, Janet teaches beginning lessons to 6 3rd grade cellists crammed into a coat closet, or a dozen violins at the end of hallway (she is not allowed to use the special ed space even if it is free). Every time there is a budget crisis (in MA, every spring), some portion of the music program is always on the chopping block, in spite of the number of students it impacts.

    My daughter (now 15) has always attended small private Christian schools. It hasn’t always been an ideal situation academically – there are definitely some gaps in her education – but her emotional and spiritual maturity are astounding to me. Could she be the same young woman if she had attended Boston public schools? I don’t know.

    With regard to unions, she has many of the same reservations as Sharolyn & Mike about the use of union dues to fund political agendas, which happens with annoying regularity. On the other hand, after two years of being paid for 15 hours while working 21 (20 contact hours is a full load) while two male colleagues were paid full-time for 12 hours each, the union was able to help her negotiate to be paid for the hours she was actually working (no back pay, though).

    Sorry my thoughts are bit random – I’m not drunk, but I am writing from work and there are constant interruptions…


  30. sharolyn

    Thanks, Rach. I would love to hang out, too. I would like to think that me keeping my job benefits the kids in my community (that it’s not just my benefit). I do not like taxes, I would just like to exercise every option before making cuts that compromise the present and future for kids. I hope you can appreciate how much I am willing to sacrifice for this perspective ($$).

    You, and all homeschooling parents, have my complete admiration. My daughter had an Oscar-award winning outrage when I told her that her S was really a 3. I’ll let someone else tell her next time. :P

    Did you all get Steve’s Avatar? Hot Cross Buns?

  31. michael lee

    I’m having a particularly bad week with the Union. This time the issue is adaptability to new ideas.

    I’m running a recording session this Friday. I would like very much to file a union contract for it, so that I can hire the best musicians available. The problem is that the union won’t let me file a contract for this kind of session.

    It’s a demo session. Cool, the union has a very reasonable demo rate. In fact, I’m paying about 50% over the demo rate. Nothing from this session will be for sale, it’s simply to demonstrate something, so it seems like that would fit, right?

    Except that we’re shooting video, and the video will include both audio and images of the singers.

    The video will never be sold, it’s simply a teaching aide to help our engineering students understanding a cool new technique for creating multi-part choral demos.

    None of that matters. Because the primary distribution platform will be digital (online, duh! what, I’m going to pass out VHS cassettes?), the union only has one kind of contract. Which means I have to pay the same rate that I would pay if we were recording a score for an NBC pilot. Which is, roughly, 450x more than I have budgeted for this session.

    I emailed them asking for a waiver, asking if there were a different kind of contract I could file, and the answer was just a mindless “No”.

    The unions are quickly showing their irrelevance to the way the new media economy works. It’s frustrating, as we independent creative professionals could really use some collective bargaining support right now. But the old mindset is just entrenched, and it’s killing any chance of the union being relevant to new media.

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