By Ben Lunn,
Chair of Disabled Members Network, Musicians Union
Chair of North Lanarkshire Trade Union Council
Last week, an article was published which highlighted the strange predicament we in the Musician’s Union (MU) find ourselves in – a bleak and rather limp option. The ultimate conclusion is ‘things are not good; but it’s not like we have other choice’
The article was succinct and clearly highlights the situation we are in. The bleakness of this situation 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%, 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. The trade unions have had to adopt an even more defensive position than had already been adopted thanks to New Labour and Thatcherite policies which saw the unions drift from significance. However, 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 the STUC, who are all preparing for a mighty fight ahead.
Within the MU, we have very specific problems, which do have quite material solutions. However, there are some very positive elements within it also. To start with the positives, everyone will have seen the daily updates from the union discussing the pressures being piled on the government by our union to remedy the chaos they have created for our ability to tour. This shows there is a hunger in the union to fight for us.
However, this is sadly not quite enough. We can highlight the issues within the leadership, however these are often only the symptoms of the deeper problems. This is by no means a reason to just let the problems slip, they need criticism and challenge, however 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 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. However, many within the union see the nature of policy in our union is 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 is poor to say the least. I must admit 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. The understanding that bosses are ultimately not our friends. In many instances, much like 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, one from the union itself, however sadly there are not enough strong voices to lead this development; though I do hope this will develop in a positive manner. However, as we are member of the TUC, STUC, and WTUC, we have partnerships with all other unions in Britain. We can learn from their example and learn 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-hour contracts’ which forces members into a position where if they speak up they lose shifts – how often have you heard 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?
In terms of political education, the latter point also highlights another key lesson. We need the other unions, and the other unions need us. Anyone who has heard the dedicated 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. If we do not support their fights, why would we expect them to defend us? If we fight with the RMT, TSSA, or ASLEF when they are fighting for better conditions on the trains they will be very happy to fight alongside us.
Internally, I mentioned there are many issues. However, there are some practical things we can do quite instantly. Firstly, we need to encourage musicians to not only join, but to be active. A union 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. However, 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.
However, 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. However, the regions do need a bit 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 a North and South groups – otherwise we risk having areas of Scotland being underrepresented.
On top of this, the powers of our committees/workgroups should be increased. The equalities committee (within which I am a proud member) can advise but sadly cannot pass policy on its own. If the workgroups, much like the sub-committees of the TUC (like 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 one of the greats of RMT, Bob Crow – if you fight you might lose, but if you don’t fight you’ll certainly lose. Let’s hope we as members of our union can organise and antagonise in such a way which puts our defence first and aims to builds a vision of an industry that is truly egalitarian but also reflects the curious nature of our industry.
By Ben Lunn,