Municipal Government

Non-Existent Pensions Still A Sour Note for Club Players

Non-Existent Pensions Still A Sour Note for Club Players

August 13, 2012
By Joe Maniscalco

The next time you stroll pass The Iridium, Birdland, The Blue Note, or any of the other world-famous Jazz clubs that make New York City special, you might just come across a sidewalk concert every bit as cool as what’s going on inside.

Local 802 AFM’s “Justice For Jazz Artists” campaign is 15 years old, but the union – the largest local union of professional musicians in the world – has started taking their fight for fair pay and pension contributions for retired musicians to the streets.

“We hear all the time about these high profile jazz musicians who had so much to offer throughout their entire careers but are now destitute in their later years,” Local 802 AFM President Tino Gagliardi says. “It’s really heartbreaking.”

The last mobile “jam session” highlighting the plight of retired jazz musicians kicked off at Columbus Circle on August 8 and moved to Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola inside the Time Warner Center before wrapping up at The Iridium on West 51st Street.

“People are very supportive,” Local 802 AFM Recording Vice-President John O’Connor says. “Having the music out there really makes a difference. The music really compels people to take flyers out of your hand – they really want to know what’s going on.”

Although a 2007 measure intended to redirect tax savings to the musicians’ pension fund was successfully passed into law, it never actually panned out. Local 802 AFM has since given up trying to legislate fairness for Jazz artists at places like the Village Vanguard and Jazz Standard, and is now focusing instead on rallying public support in an effort to compel NYC’s premiere jazz clubs to do the right thing, and help secure the futures of the hardworking musicians they employ. 

“We think that everyone recognizes that these musicians have been exploited for too long and they deserve a decent retirement like anybody else,” Gagliardi says. 

Local 802 AFM’s efforts have had success, spreading across the country to California where Local 47 has started its own Justice For Jazz Artists campaign.

“A lot of musicians play cash dates, so they don’t get Social Security a lot of the times,” O’Connor says. “It’s more important for musicians to get a pension than a lot of other workers because they’re not going to have as much Social Security when they reach a certain age.”

Singer and songwriter Ray Rivera’s musical career stretches all the way back to the 1950s when he played the same New York City club circuit as legends Charlie Parker and Billie Holliday. Rivera has never stopped performing, and can sometimes be seen at Adobe Blues on Staten Island and other venues around the city. Still, he expresses “frustration” at not being able to draw a pension after all his years devoted to music.

“It’s a very hard situation,” Rivera says. “If I had a pension, I wouldn’t have to worry. I play whenever I can get a gig, but it’s very difficult to get a gig. You worry about your medical bills, and whatever other expenses you have because Social Security doesn’t give you that much.”

Local 802 AFM’s leadership acknowledges that the union has not always been friendly to minority jazz musicians like Rivera, and routinely left many to struggle on their own.

“In the old days – going back to the 50s and 60s – if you wanted to play music in New York City, you had to be in the union – regardless if the union gave you any benefits or had you covered under any collective bargaining agreement,” O’Connor explains. “As a result, you had a lot of musicians who played jazz in New York who derived very little benefit from the union, but were still required to be in the union and pay their dues. I think that led to some ill feelings for the musicians about the union, and what it was worth to them.”

Today, Local 802 AFM is actively trying to repair that historical damage, and has enlisted the support of notable jazz greats like Ron Carter, Jimmy Owens, Joe Lovano and others in the Justice For Jazz Artists campaign.

“We’re trying to make up for that by putting a lot of resources into this organizing campaign and showing the musicians how they can help themselves get vested in the pension program,” O’Connor says.

In addition to fair pay and pension benefits, Local 802 AFM is also pushing to bring collective bargaining to the night clubs, and establish recording rights for club musicians who sometimes never benefit from the recording of their live performances. But obstacles remain.

“The main thing that’s hanging us up is that the night clubs are saying that they are not the employer of the musicians – that the band leaders are the employers of the musicians,” O’Connor says. “So, our campaign now is pretty much directed toward trying to use leverage and public embarrassment so that the six major clubs in New York City will sit down and talk with us on a voluntary basis.”

Local AFM maintains a list of some 900 side musicians who have worked for the six major New York City jazz clubs in the last year – most support the union efforts and its Justice For Jazz Artists campaign – but more work needs to be done.

“We need to reach out to more musicians,” O’Connor says. “We need to be confident that we have the support of the musicians before we escalate the campaign to a higher level. We’re not sure where we’re going to go at this point, but there are options open to us – leading up to a consumer boycott of one of the night clubs.”

August 12, 2012

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