A Path Towards a Unified AGMA

Now that the stage is set for AGMA’s upcoming election, it’s time to talk about why this election matters. There are five contested races for national officers. It’s vital that the campaigns provide a means for members to understand what they are choosing between: two different philosophies of union governance.

I think many of you instinctively sense that there is discontentment in the ranks of AGMA’s members. Some are angry about what they don’t have while others are fearful of what they might lose. Cracks have been developing in our solidarity. Over the last six years or so, those cracks have continued to worsen.

It’s time to acknowledge that AGMA’s incumbent governing philosophy has failed the membership. This philosophy is the root cause of the divided situation we are now confronting. Let me be clear: the issue is not that our leaders haven’t been fighting hard for us. They always do. All of AGMA’s officers and governors should be proud of their dedication and effort, and I am grateful for their service. However, they have also unwittingly been fighting to maintain a system that has been failing us. And as a result, we have bargained ourselves into a corner: we have reached the endgame of a system of governance that was based on a flawed philosophy. AGMA, over time, has become a custodial union.

There’s an article in the December 1948 issue of AGMAzine that I think about a lot. The headline reads: “A Frank Chat with Solo Vocalists”. In this article, the unnamed author pleads with soloists to get more involved in union affairs, and strives to push back against the reasons soloists frequently cite for not getting involved. While this article was written 71 years ago, it could easily have been written yesterday, because in 71 years nothing has changed. Well… one thing has changed, and that is that AGMA’s leaders have come to accept soloist apathy as a permanent condition.

 

My take on the history is that many years of soloist disconnectedness finally brought AGMA to a crossroads – and we chose the wrong path. We should have continued to work to build solidarity and encourage participation, but, given the potential risk of retaliation soloists might face after serving on a negotiating committee, AGMA instead sought to shield soloists from that risk through the use of negotiating committees almost exclusively composed of full-time shop members who enjoy both some protections against non-reengagement and a culture of solidarity. Soloists could thus express their concerns to these full-timers, who would happily fight their battles for them. No need for the soloists to get their hands dirty – the full-timers would look after their interests.

So, how’d this work out? Not well. It’s really hard to comprehensively represent the interests of a group that isn’t actually in the room during negotiations. It’s even harder when that group has become increasingly detached from the workings of the union over time, thus becoming gradually less capable of understanding or predicting how changes to the agreements being negotiated may impact them.

Another consequence of this structure was that, as full-timers came to do the bulk of the negotiating, they also began serving in more and more positions in governance.

This increasing detachment has perpetuated a vicious cycle. We’re now living with the results of many iterations of this cycle, over a period of decades.

It is crucial that we all understand that, while soloist apathy may well have been the origin of this problem, this issue is not about soloists. The problem is systemic and impacts a far larger segment of our membership.

The concerning disparity that has arisen in our ranks is between AGMA members who work full-time for a single signatory, and those of us who are itinerant, working for a variety of companies over the course of a season.

In negotiation after negotiation, house upon house, year after year, AMGA has allowed the contractual language that gave itinerant members a shot at a career and a living to erode – not because the full-timers had ill intent towards itinerants, but because they lacked both the perspective to foresee the impact their decisions would have on itinerants over time, and a personal stake in the outcome of decisions that disproportionately impacted itinerants.

The way that AGMA’s policies and priorities have failed itinerant members makes a lot more sense when you regard these failures as the natural consequences of this philosophy of custodianship:

  • How could six years pass after the degradation of AGMA’s Health Fund Plan B, yet we still don’t have anything in place to replace it? It’s not that those currently in governance don’t care, but rather that they just unwittingly limited crucial options.
  • Why do we devote so little effort to organizing more houses? Because it’s not a major priority of the full-timers working at houses that are already organized, and since full-timers make up the bulk of governance, they set the agenda.
  • Why did we stop trying to bargain with multiple signatories for similar contract language? Continuity of language doesn’t matter much when you are only working for a single employer, but the lack of it makes any attempt at providing a path towards benefits for our itinerant members much more challenging.
  • Why have we allowed companies to administer their own benefits? From the perspective of an individual shop, maintaining the quality of the benefits you receive is of far greater concern than where those benefits are coming from.

All of this slow deterioration over a period of decades has made it much harder to contemplate a successor to Plan B: We lost the foundation that would have made a replacement plan easier to implement.

The failure of AGMA’s custodial model makes the truth abundantly clear: To fix what is broken, we need all hands on deck. No group can assume custodianship over any other group. Either we fix this together, or it doesn’t get fixed.

The composition of V4A’s slate of candidates encapsulates that belief. It achieves representation for member categories comprising 97% of AGMA’s membership and also is well balanced between full-timers and itinerants. As I stated in an earlier post, we need everyone in the room, and a more inclusive and democratic approach to governance is the best way to achieve that. As long as any custodianship persists, the rifts within our ranks will continue to widen, threatening our solidarity and weakening our position at the bargaining table, which hurts all our members.

My opponent’s statements so far in this campaign indicate that he intends to leave a custodial model in place. The language in his initial campaign statement, for example, repeatedly holds up the ideal of AGMA “serving” its members. In one instance, he said: “AGMA has recently added three dance companies to its roster. These new members need education on how to have their needs addressed by their union.” These new members took the initiative and worked hard to organize new houses. They are shining examples of what is possible for our union. It’s our job to learn from them.

We must begin to think not in terms of how AGMA can “serve” its members, but what all of us can accomplish together.

My opponent has made no mention of the importance of increased transparency in governance. I had hoped he would support my attempts to enable an honest conversation about AGMA’s past, and was dismayed by his opposition to those efforts. He has also not responded to proposals to discuss joining me in a moderated debate. In the custodial model, there’s no need for you to know anything about what’s going on in governance, because it’s not your responsibility to worry about it.

We can’t improve the engagement of our members in this union, no matter how hard we try, if we continue to cling to a model of governance that systematically marginalizes many of them. The problem will not be solved until the approach changes.

Our core belief is that we need to achieve “A Voice for All.” We’re here to get you informed and involved in the conversation so we can solve this together, because building strength through solidarity and fair representation requires a team effort. A Voice for All’s candidates are dedicated to better and more open collaboration between the membership, the Board of Governors, the national officers, and AGMA’s hard-working staff.

We can begin to build this strength by increasing transparency to allow all union members to better see their leadership in action; educating members, especially new ones, about union practices, the power of solidarity, and how to hold governance accountable; building an online community so all AGMA members can better connect with the union and each other; and finding better ways to protect itinerant members against retaliation, so that they will be able to join us at the negotiating table without fear of reprisal.

The changes to the structure of AGMA’s governance we need will not come overnight, and will stand the best chance of success if we can build a broad consensus for them. Even though we’ve got a long road ahead of us, if we can walk down this road together, we will achieve the gains long sought by our itinerant members without placing the hard-won benefits our full-time members receive at risk. This is the path towards reinvigorating our membership and healing the long-standing divisions in our union.