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WE IN the in the Musicians’ Union (MU) find ourselves facing bleak conclusions when it comes to the state of things — they are not good but it’s not like we have any other choice.
That bleakness is underlined by the prospect of an industrial nightmare ahead of us, with the West End dropping musicians for the sake of profits, education being cut by 50 per cent and gigs still being a tentative dream because of the pandemic.
So how on earth do we remedy this? What can be done?
Throughout the past 10-12 years, as a result of austerity, there have been dogmatic attacks on the trade union movement as a whole. They have had to assume an even more defensive position than had already been adopted thanks to New Labour and Thatcherite policies, which saw the unions drift from significance.
Yet this bleakness seems to be dissipating. Having had the pleasure of being a delegate for my local trades council, I was able to see the fiery energies coming from a Scottish Trades Union Congress preparing for a mighty fight ahead.
There are some very positive elements within the MU also. The union is piling pressure on the government to remedy the chaos they have created for our ability to tour. This shows that there is a hunger in the union to fight for its members
Sadly, this is not quite enough. We can highlight leadership issues but these are often only symptoms of deeper problems. This is no reason to just let the problems slip, they need criticism and challenge. But if the bottom of the tree is rotten it does not really matter what is flowering at the top.
Ultimately, the function of a trade union is to act as the political and democratic arm of the workers in their industry. A union fights for the rights of workers and allows us to exercise our rights to avoid exploitation. This is ultimately a political concern.
But many within the union see the nature of policy to be about advising governments and businesses, through partnership agreements which ultimately removed the bite from the union because a nice “compromise” was won.
This highlights the core issue we have to address: political education. Within our union it is poor to say the least. Most of my trade union education came from playing in colliery brass bands and involvement in my local trades council.
As a trade union movement, we should be teaching our members the importance of, and reasons for, fighting — along with the understanding that bosses are ultimately not our friends. In many instances, much as we are seeing in the West End, management of venues and theatres will happily chuck us away to preserve or enhance their own position.
This education can come from many places, including from the union itself, but there are not enough strong voices to lead this development.
I hope this will change positively — we are a member of the TUC, STUC and WTUC and we have partnerships with all other unions in Britain. We can learn from their example and how their fights are replicated within our own.
Precarious work is something we have suffered for far too long — as musicians we are almost stereotypically expected to have a coffee shop job to help us pay rent until we get our “big break.”
Members of Unite, Unison and GMB are constantly fighting the stain of zero-hours contracts which force members into a position where if they speak up they lose shifts.
Often, fellow musicians say: “I would speak up but I don’t want to be seen as someone who makes a fuss or gain a reputation that stops me getting work.”
That latter point also highlights another key lesson. We need the other unions and the other unions need us. Anyone who has heard the stories from the NUM or the East Kilbride factories that refused to build things for Pinochet understands that the best trade unionists do not just fight their own corner, they fight for others too.
Because of the economic woes we are about to witness coming out of the pandemic, all unions will be fighting various fights and if we do not support their fights, why would we expect them to defend us? If we fight alongside the RMT, TSSA or Aslef when they are fighting for better conditions on the trains they will be very happy to fight alongside us.
There are some practical things we can do straightaway. We need to encourage musicians to not only join but to be active in the union, which is only as good as its members.
If we only pay our monthly dues, there is very little impact we can have on the world around us. But if we see a greater percentage of members pushing the union’s demands, pushing for better industry standards across the board or simply making sure we defend other musicians in trouble, we would see a union that is not only incredibly dynamic but one that we can take pride in because of the wider impact it is having.
This activity needs a bit of steering. We do have an infrastructure but it has sadly been underused and the voting turnout for elections such as regional committees is terrible. With so few members engaging in the chance to vote for their local reps it is hardly a surprise there are problems in the leadership.
And the regions do need more addressing — I personally find it very bizarre that Scotland shares a regional office with the North of Ireland. Surely the six counties deserve their own singular regional committee and Scotland really should be divided into north and south groups, otherwise we risk having areas of the country being under-represented.
The powers of our committees and work groups should be increased. The equalities committee — of which I am a proud member — can advise but sadly cannot pass policy on its own. If the workgroups, much like the subcommittees of the TUC such as the Disabled Workers TUC, had the ability to push forward their own motions as a voice of a sector of the workforce, our union would be in a stronger position.
The road ahead isn’t easy. But if we do not take up the fight we certainly won’t win. To quote the RMT’s great Bob Crow: “If you fight you might lose, but if you don’t fight you’ll certainly lose.”
Let’s hope that we as members of our union can organise and agitate, putting our defence first and aiming to build a vision of an industry that is truly egalitarian but also reflects its particular nature.
Composer and conductor Ben Lunn is Chair of the Disabled Members’ Network, Musicians Union and Chair of North Lanarkshire Trade Union Council. He will shortly be writing a monthly column on culture and politics in the Morning Star.
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