Covid-19 – A message to British Musicians: The Musicians’ Union is our only hope, but the response of our leadership exposes the vital changes we need!

The various trade unions for musicians around the world are all reacting as best they can to the crisis that the Covid-19 Pandemic has created for their members. There have been some fantastic results achieved across the globe, both in realised wins and in creative negotiating aims, but it saddens me to say that in Britain the crisis seems to be revealing only the areas where the British Musicians’ Union (the MU) has been found wanting. Individual members will most likely have largely positive experiences to report of their dealings with MU Officials and Staff and this not a criticism of their work, they are quite clearly wonderfully holding things together under enormous levels of pressure. It is, however, a criticism of the lack of leadership at the top of the MU.

As events on the international circuit started to be cancelled over the past few weeks, where was the General Secretary? At home? On holiday? Followers of the news will have seen the Leaders of various teaching, general, industrial and craft unions promoting the needs of their members, but we have heard nothing from our General Secretary in the mainstream media. Arguably the MU needed leadership coming into this crisis more than ever, yet there were no direct bulletins even issued internally by the General Secretary. Only when a member directly asked, “Where is Horace Trubridge?” during an “Ask the DGS” social media session with Naomi Pohl, were members written to by the General Secretary. I write with utter dismay that when we needed leadership, we were offered a long period of silence.

The MU Rules state that one of its primary objectives is to provide financial assistance to members and the families of members during times of need, and until the 23rd March, the MU Covid-19 guidance appeared to indicate a ‘washing of hands’; in fact there were no references at all to the financial support the MU itself could offer Members, only links to external bodies who might be able to offer financial support. The MU Benevolent Fund has not been bolstered (EC minutes state that it has been allowed to diminish) and access will not be granted to members for Covid-19 related hardship. A motion supported by 61 members was submitted to the EC asking for this to be addressed and the EC response was to set up a separate fund of £1million with a cap of £200 per member. With reported losses to UK musicians of nearly £14million so far, only 5000 members facing hardship will be awarded £200 and the remainder will lose out. This is a union with reserves of around £15million and an annual salary bill to Officials of over £4million. Surely,
we can do better than this.

Assisting members as individuals is of course only one aspect to the work of the MU. The core objective is to secure the complete organisation of all musicians so that it might work for us collectively. This crisis has brought to the fore a number of major problems with this side of the MU’s work and the lack of strategy being followed by the Leadership.

Firstly, we must address the euphemistically so-called Self-Governing orchestras, which in reality operate nothing like a John Lewis employee-ownership model. Members of four of London’s major full-time symphony orchestras (LSO, LPO, Philharmonia and RPO) are all classified as self-employed, despite arguably failing to meet the most basic employment status checks for self-employment available.

The MU has wilfully ignored this situation of tenuous employment status, apparently arguing that members of these orchestras benefit from the financial flexibility that self-employment brings (including the possibility of offsetting taxable expenses). Members have followed the lead of their union almost without question – and who can blame them? Is it not reasonable to trust that your trade union would work for your best interests?

The other argument offered by the MU for the continuation of this bogus self-employment is that these orchestras could not afford the associated costs of giving musicians “employee status” (NI contributions, pension contributions, and of course – Statutory Sick Pay amongst other statutory employee benefits). In other words, the MU has allowed these orchestras to operate in a manner that leaves members without the protections that employee status would bring, in order to sustain the industry. We could of course spend time arguing that it is false logic to conclude that we would lose orchestras if they employed their members properly, by saying that in reality, employee status would probably encourage a better funding model with funding more reflective of the actual costs. But we can’t forget that all of that is academic given that the question of
employment status is a legal issue! It isn’t within the gift of the Secretariat of the MU to make strategic decisions to “protect orchestras” at cost to members’ legal rights.

There are many other areas of the MU membership where employment status is clearly
questionable yet there is no clear strategy (or even apparent desire) to help members address this. Zero-hours teachers with “worker status”, West End Show Band musicians classified as Self-Employed working under an MU Collective Bargaining Agreement with the Society of London Theatres (SOLT), touring shows on the road for sometimes well over a year. Why does the MU tolerate a situation where entire bands can be dropped with a mere 2 weeks’ notice for no reason other than a Producer’s whim, sometimes with well over a decade of service? Or rather I should ask, why do we tolerate it?

The membership of the MU has to grapple with the question of whether it is right for their trade union to prioritise questionable higher levels of employment over the employment rights of those employed. It doesn’t seem sustainable and inevitably leads to a race to the bottom.

Although a major issue for the MU, the above problems affect a relatively small group of
members. The vast majority of members are genuinely self-employed, yet there has been no campaigning until now for better protections for the self-employed. The MU leadership has systematically failed to work in collaboration with other trade unions and campaigning groups working to further the rights of the self-employed, having been preoccupied with issues around digital copyright, and more recently Brexit. No doubt these are issues that are important to members, however, all of us are now painfully aware of the importance of these other missed campaigning issues as well. We mustn’t forget that while the situation facing us collectively now is quite obviously terrible, the financial implications suffered at the level of the individual are arguably no greater than those facing any one of us struck down by injury, cancer, or any other sudden debilitating issue preventing us from working. There wasn’t a safety net for the self-employed long before the Covid-19 Pandemic came along.

The last Labour Party manifesto contained a number of pledges for the self-employed, including free childcare, annual income assessments for those on Universal Credit, better access to mortgages, better access to pension schemes, and collective income protection insurance schemes. The manifesto was accused of being undeliverable, but few could disagree that if a Labour Government had been given a chance to start making headway towards these pledges, then self-employed musicians would be in a less dire situation than they now find themselves. However, the General Secretary Horace Trubridge showed his support for this manifesto by focusing entirely on Brexit, encouraging swathes of the membership away from Labour. He went as far as writing to Members telling them, “it would be wholly wrong of me to tell you how to vote in the general election so I’m not going to do it.” Maybe some members agree with this sentiment, but we can’t forget that this is a trade union affiliated to the Labour Party, failing to openly campaign for the election of a Labour Government.

So, as members of the MU, we have to ask questions of our leadership. Now that such a large proportion of the MU membership is suffering the consequences of the government’s woefully inadequate plans for the self-employed, the MU Leadership seem to have woken up to the issues surrounding members’ employment status. But do we now trust that they really understand how the past approach to employment status, and lack of any associated campaigning helped to keep musicians in penury? To answer that, we should look at the three campaigning positions that the MU has adopted:

  1. Implement a Universal Basic Income (UBI) of £400 per week for the self-employed (which equates to the living wage), OR, as in Norway, pay them 80% of their average income over the past three years.
  2. Announce statutory sick pay (SSP) that is really for all from day one of self isolation whether you have coronavirus or someone in your household does.
  3. Give easier access to benefits and an application process that recognises how freelancers pay their taxes.

Are these campaigning positions sophisticated enough to reflect the gravity of the situation we find ourselves in? Are these positions the MU would adopt long-term? Post-crisis will the MU support UBI? Given that UBI negates the necessity for SSP why are we campaigning for both?! Do they understand that a UBI for only the self-employed is somewhat oxymoronic? Now that the MU leadership have woken up to the inadequacy of Universal Credit, would they continue to campaign for its improvement if a UBI was achieved for the self-employed? These are just some of the questions we should be asking of our union leadership.

The MU leadership has a chance of reprieve in the form of the Chancellor’s announcement that the Government is working on further measures for the self-employed, but the Chancellor has stated that “it’s complicated” because they want to target the support at those who need it rather than issuing blanket sums or percentages.

What should the MU’s response be? What is it campaigning for? How long does it want the
support to be in place for? When the crisis passes, will the MU wish to return to the status quo ante or develop a new policy line regarding employment rights for the self-employed? There will be members who find that they are still struggling if the solution is to take 80% of their average income over 3 years; and may well have struggled on their full income. Will the MU campaign for better support for those members falling through the cracks? They weren’t campaigning before so can we trust that they will start now? We can be certain that if the campaigning had already been in place to develop a sensible blueprint for a sophisticated and reasonable employment system that would work for the MU’s members, then we would be in a much better position to be able to influence the thinking now.

Whether an acceptable package for the self-employed is introduced or not, my view is that we have to start campaigning to use this crisis to bring about the vital and necessary changes to the employment status system, creating a fair deal for the self-employed whether there is a national crisis or not. Good Work: The Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices clearly stated that the government should aim towards both self-employment and employment meaning the same for both tax purposes and employment rights. The MU has never opened a consultation with the membership on the findings of the Taylor Review and how we might want to see employment status operating. If they had undertaken that work, then we would of course be in a much better place to negotiate meaningfully with government about the provisions that are needed for the self-employed. It’s hard to hear but we have to be more sophisticated than campaigning only once the crisis has hit. It’s reckless to worry about lifeboats only after the ship has started sinking.

There is a lot of work to be done, and the leadership must start looking to facilitate that work.
MU Members for Change believes the initial necessary steps are:

• Support more grass roots organising and education of the membership. Only through
education and support will members be able to understand their own employment
situation fully in order to call on their union for help in addressing their difficulties and
increase the effectiveness of the union.
• The leadership must begin really listening to the views of the membership and acting
according to the collective wishes of all and for the collective good of all. To do this they
have to build on consultations with the membership to develop our voice and encourage
member engagement.
• There must be a clear strategy to develop the MU into a lay-led union, with Leadership
accountable to the membership.

Despite the difficulties of current trade union legislation in the U.K., the MU remains the only hope for British Musicians, but we must face up to the reality that there is a void in creativity, strategy and most importantly, leadership at the top of our union. I’m certain we would all agree that now isn’t the time for political point scoring or childish ‘I told
you so’s, but it is clearly a watershed moment. It is a watershed moment for the arts in this
country, and a watershed moment for our union. We need to face up to the failings of the past and look for the solutions we need in order to survive in the future.

Published by MU Members for Change

MU Members For Change is a broad and diverse coalition of members within the Musicians’ Union. It exists to facilitate communication between members; to aid the delivery of member voice to the Executive Committee; and to promote democracy within the Musicians’ Union. Enquiries should be sent to:

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