Response to Naomi Pohl’s GS Election Address by Jim Fleeman

It is not a surprise that an election address should read as an exaggeration of a candidate’s attributes and suitability for what is, effectively, a political appointment. But the content of Naomi Pohl’s address was so far removed from the reality of her involvement in the Union that some redress needs to be given to understand her candidacy and what her success might mean for the future of all those in the music industry.

With specific reference to commercial theatre, the Union’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic threw into sharp relief a Union that was unwilling to listen and respond to its members, engage pro-actively in negotiations on their behalf and adapt to the challenges of a situation that required alterations to their usual modus operandi. Most worryingly, the Union showed that it was prepared to go to extreme lengths to aggressively defend itself against criticism from members, whether or not it was justified.

I have written before about the debacle surrounding the negotiations of proposed variations to the SOLT/MU Agreement. Naomi Pohl was at the centre of this process from the beginning and her actions might be examined in the light of the claims she makes in her election address.

For those not involved in commercial theatre some background might be helpful.

Background

Within a few weeks of the theatres closing in March 2020 and following conversations with Naomi Pohl, the Society of London Theatre (SOLT) wrote to the MU suggesting a temporary variation to the existing Agreement that involved drastic pay-cuts. They did this despite openly acknowledging what everyone understood to be a rapidly developing situation that made future planning all but impossible.

SOLT subsequently revised the variations, putting forward new proposals that were initially rejected by Union committees. At SOLT’s insistence these proposals were put to ballot anyway and rejected by an 84% majority.

Central to SOLT’s proposal was that existing provisions for payment of Sunday performances would be reviewed once the variations had expired. Acceptance of the proposal meant acceptance of the renegotiation of clauses relating to Sunday pay. There was nothing temporary about this element of the proposal: it sought to see permanent changes to the agreement and it sought to make them under the guise of variations that were proposed as a temporary necessity.

According to the Union, SOLT refused to offer any guarantee or signal an intention to revert to the terms of 2019/20 Agreement. 

Despite desperate entreaties from members, Naomi Pohl refused to concede that there was any significance to this element of SOLT’s approach. Indeed, the Union was very keen to downplay it. 

Consequently, the orchestra for the West End production on which I work approached members directly, immediately prior to the ballot. The intention was to ensure that the consequences of accepting the proposal were properly and widely understood.

When she became aware of our actions, Naomi Pohl’s response was to distribute an official email to hundreds of Union members. She stated that my colleagues and I had “undermined (the Union’s) balloting process”, “damaged the Union’s credibility”, had engaged in “falsehoods”, “inaccuracies” and “misinformation”.

None of these statements were true. It is very difficult to believe that Naomi Pohl could have thought that they were.

Naomi Pohl’s Manifesto

Claims: I will ensure we are … always putting members first (and) representing their interests robustly.

During the pandemic, members were abjectly unable to influence Naomi Pohl and the Union to follow even the most basic good-practice on behalf of their members.

Despite members requests, opportunities to gain reassurances as to intention, make appropriate changes to proposals and to mitigate potential dangers to members income and working conditions – the most basic elements of representation – weren’t just missed. They were rejected out of hand.

In the Zoom meetings that followed the first ballot, Naomi Pohl’s involvement was chiefly notable for her constant reiteration of the – sometimes spurious – arguments that SOLT used to justify the content of its proposals. These were offered consistently as counter-arguments to the concerns that members raised.

Naomi Pohl was simply disinclined to listen to members. Instead, her primary focus was that the interests of SOLT were fully and properly represented. There was nothing to indicate that she had a comparable intention to ensure her members interests and concerns were as comprehensively understood by SOLT.

Perhaps the best example of her attitude to members is the Zoom conference with SOLT that took place prior to the second ballot:

After the rejection of the first proposal, SOLT issued a revised proposal. The revisions did not represent significant improvement on the first proposal but Naomi Pohl and the Union were keen to bring the matter to a close so they recommended that members accept and embarked on a campaign to persuade them to do so.

To this end, a Zoom conference was organised with SOLT in which members were told they would have the opportunity to address their concerns directly to SOLT’s Chief Negotiator.

Naomi Pohl organised and hosted the event in which members were actually denied the option for real-time involvement. Instead, she asked members to submit questions in advance and, during the event, she was careful not to choose questions that SOLT might find difficult to answer or that might weaken its position.

Whether she did this at SOLT’s request or not is immaterial. She consciously denied members the opportunity to obtain answers and reassurances to their concerns, or establish that SOLT were neither willing nor able to provide them. At the same time, she gave SOLT a platform on which they could make their case unchallenged by the many members who suspected them of acting with undue haste and self-interest.

Claim: I will ensure all members are able to influence union policy… and show members that their activism really counts. (I want) a fully accessible, accountable and democratic union

The reason members resorted to communicating directly with each other prior to the first ballot was because the Union were so deaf to members’ pleas for a more pro-active response to SOLT’s proposal, and for greater clarity as to its content and recognition of the consequences of acceptance.

The message in the Union’s response to members’ who queried its approach was clear: This is the way we do business. We have no intention of altering our approach or changing the decisions we have made on your behalf.

For this reason, my band-mates and I approached other members directly. Far from respecting our ‘activism’, Naomi Pohl’s response was as shocking as it was brutal.

The reasons she felt moved to respond at all, let alone with the severity she did, are still not clear. Apparently SOLT had read our email and one might assume that she was moved to respond as a show of Union strength and a means of mollifying them.

What is clear is the punitive nature of her response. Her email to members (and presumably SOLT) appeared to be an attempt to name-and-shame. She set out to discredit me and my colleagues and misrepresented our arguments and intentions (knowingly, I believe) in order to do so.

The sentiments we expressed in our email to colleagues were largely echoed by the 84% of members who rejected the proposal. But Naomi Pohl did not accept this result as a mandate to act on the democratically expressed views of an overwhelming majority. She rejected the option of using clearly expressed views of members as a means of encouraging SOLT to modify its approach, choosing instead to forcefully and publicly distance herself and the Union from the wishes and opinions of the people she is supposed to represent.

As well as her response to our email, she expressed her frustration at the result in meetings with the WESC. Our band steward was a member of the West End Sub Committee. He reported an extremely awkward meeting following the ballot result at which Naomi Pohl was the senior Union official. During the meeting he was severely admonished for his part in distributing the email and for discussing issues with his colleagues that the Union wished to keep out of general circulation. He was asked for his resignation.

The WESC is funded partly by members contributions. It is not a secret committee and the information discussed was information that members should very definitely have been aware of.

The treatment that our band steward was subjected to was certainly not indicative of an accountable, accessible and democratic Union. It was indicative – as was Naomi Pohl’s email response – of a Union that has no qualms about punishing members that do not do what Union officials want them to do, or that dare to speak out of turn.

Our band did not send any more emails as a single entity. At a time when we were in an extremely vulnerable and uncertain professional situation (unlike Naomi Pohl), some of my band-mates were unwilling to incur any further retribution from a Union official who had so publicly thrown them under a bus and, it was felt, painted a target on their backs in terms of future employment.

Naomi Pohl’s commitment to her members, to activism and to democratic process is such that she moved to silence those who dared to speak in a way that the Union did not approve. To view reasoned and reasonable criticism as dissent, and to move to suppress it, is not synonymous with respect for democratic process or for the people she purports to represent. It is also a very worrying trait to note in someone who wants to be General Secretary.

Claim: (I want to) ensure we are the best possible Union for our members.

The Union we encountered during the pandemic crisis was exactly the Union we have heard complaints about for decades: an institution whose first instinct is to protect the interests of the Executive, not those of members. A Union in which the gulf between rhetoric and action, between the representation the Union promises and the representation it is actually willing to give, is impossible to ignore.

It is this Union that Naomi Pohl exemplifies and has had an active role in sustaining. It is this Union that Naomi Pohl will give us as General Secretary.

In the negotiation process described above, the Union’s weakness, intransigence and disregard of its members was laid bare in Zoom meetings and emails. A great many members witnessed first-hand a Union whose behaviour confirmed their worst suspicions.

As a result, trust in the Union is at an all-time low. Some people have left already and others are waiting for the outcome of future negotiations before doing so. On our production there is every chance that Union membership will fall to around 10%. It is likely that Union members in West End pits will soon be in a minority.

Musicians desperately need a General Secretary that can restore the faith and trust of Union members, and end the institutionalised dysfunctionality that the current Secretariat and EC members will not admit to, let alone address.

Members don’t need a firebrand who will be deaf to the economic realities of a changing world, but they desperately need someone who will be unafraid to stand up to those who try and take unfair advantage of those changes, as well as those who simply operate with predictable self-interest.

Members need to know they are listened to, properly represented and not side-lined in decision making by people who do not suffer the consequences of those decisions.

This will not happen if Naomi Pohl becomes General Secretary.

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: mumembersforchange@gmail.com

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