A couple of years ago I received an email signed by a dozen or so Eastman students. It was sent to Eastman School jazz students and faculty. This group had met out of frustration. It seems that within the student jazz community at Eastman, there hadn’t been much discussion or communication between them about how to contract gigs, or for that matter how much to charge. This had resulted in a wide range of prices charged for the same type of work, and as a result there had been a considerable amount of unintentional undercutting going on. Some bands were not rehired to play at certain clubs because another group would play for less. The musicians who met and drafted the email proposed several minimum wage scales. It occurred to me that they were, in effect, forming a union.
This is what unions do. They establish minimum pay rates and working conditions. They help organize and protect the musicians. They have standardized contracts, and if an employer tries to renege on paying, the union will stand behind the musicians. The other major function of a union is to gain legal representation on behalf of a group of workers (read: employees), and then negotiate directly with the employer on their behalf. Examples of this are orchestra contracts, contracts with specific performance venues, and various recording agreements such as: Sound Recordings, Industrial Films, Theatrical Motion Picture, Television Film, Basic Cable Television, Commercial Announcements and National Public Radio
Unions help take the “Wild West,” every man for himself, mind-set out of the mix. One often hears the comment, “What has the union done for me? They haven’t given me any work.” That could be true, but the union’s job is not to hand out work. It is to protect its members from what I just described.
Now, there can be great variation between locals in their effectiveness and service to the rank and file, but in general, I think unions are good. I have a nice little pension due to the recording work I have done, and I have good working conditions in the orchestra in which I play. For a professional musician, unless you are a soloist, most of the “good work” is union work.