I grew up surrounded by unions; union-made clothing, union-employed family members, unionized teachers, union awareness… I vividly remember the grape boycott in the 1960s due to the farm workers’ strike. https://www.history.com/news/delano-grape-strike-united-farm-workers-filipinos My first paychecks had union dues deducted from the net – the woman who trained us to be cashiers at E.J.Korvette was a die-hard union gal! There were jingles on the radio; “Look For The Union Label” and films like NORMA RAE and THE PAJAMA GAME presented unions in a supportive light.
I joined Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians in 1973 and worked “on the card” as much as possible. While I never got a gig from hanging out at Roseland, I went through reams of manuscript in my years as a music copyist and joined AFTRA & SAG when I began singing on recording sessions. When I moved to Chicago, I joined 10-208 – when we moved to Los Angeles, I joined Local 47.
With my own favorable experiences working in unions, I was distressed when Ronald Reagan (a former SAG union president himself!) took aim at the air controllers union in the early 1980s. Workers’ unions have always been under attack, but especially so over the past 40 years, as politicians and corporations have tried to divide us by vilifying the very idea of workers pulling together to demand safe work conditions and fair wages. (the nerve! how DARE we?)
There have been as many changes to unions over the years as there have been to the world at large, and some of them are not positive; more than once we’ve brought a problem to the union and not had our concerns taken seriously, or taken at ALL! (I’m remembering a New Year’s Eve gig where I had a signed contract with a club and got stiffed… and then there was the time the union didn’t follow up on thousands of dollars in residuals that were due to us and the singers we’d hired! A Dime A Dozen). Graft and corruption have seeped into the handling of pension plans, for example, and, as in many other business dealings, there’s always been the tendency for contractors to hire others on the basis of friendship (or kickback!) rather than merit.
But most musicians I know have only fantasized about enacting some of the behavior in ON THE WATERFRONT. In a more perfect world, unions would be more perfect, but in the world we actually HAVE, they are plenty good enough.