More Than Meets the Ear: How Symphony Musicians Made Labor History

By Keough, James | Strings, May 2006 | Go to article overview

More Than Meets the Ear: How Symphony Musicians Made Labor History


Keough, James, Strings


More Than Meets the Ear: How Symphony Musicians Made Labor History by Julie Ayer. Syren Book Co., www.itascabooks. com, $16.95.

Power to the Players

Struggle, strife, and triumph make for an engaging read

WHEN PEOPLE THINK ABOUT THE STRUGGLE for workers'rights, they tend to conjure up images of hardscrabble copper miners and rough-and-tumble steel workers clashing with Pinkerton thugs, not musicians vying with recalcitrant symphony boards. Somehow the notion that labor strife could coexist with the making of great music seems unimaginable, jnd yet the fight for better working conditions, benefits, and basic rights occupied the musicians and managers of America's great orchestras for the better part of 30 years.

It's a campaign that ripples through today's shrinking arts budget, and Julie Ayer, assistant principal second violinist with the Minnesota Orchestra, recounts this unusual story in rich detail, starting with an overview of how major orchestras formed in the latter part of the 19th century.

With her eyes firmly on the tribulations of the symphony musicians, Ayer takes the reader through the growth of big city orchestras, the rise of professional musicians, the formation of the American Federation of Musicians (the union to which all professional symphony musicians eventually belonged), and the labor problems-low wages, difficult working conditions, part-time status, lack of pensions and benefits, arbitrary termination-that festered until the 1950s and '60s.

At the heart of this story lies something unique in labor history: a union that purported to represent all of its members, Ayer contends, but actually was in cahoots with management, and often actively fought some members' attempts to get fair representation and to review and ratify their own contracts. This occurred partly because the AFM represented all types of musicians, which meant symphony musicians were outnumbered and thus sometimes ignored. …

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