NewsDec 5, 04:48 PM
By Pete Vriesenga
The Denver Musician, Winter 2008
The bumper sticker on my wife’s car is a good reminder of what we stand for: “The Labor Movement – the folks who brought you the weekend.” We often take for granted that the weekend is that time when we do our Holiday shopping, catch up with chores around the home and change the oil in the car. It’s a time when we meet the neighbors for dinner before going out for a concert, and a time when we can go to church or spend a day with family at the zoo.
It’s hard to imagine life without a weekend, but it was little more than a concept through much of the industrial revolution when men, women and children were working 10 & 16-hr days and seven-day weeks. There was a strong work ethic at the time as many of these workers came from farms, but as farmers they could still regulate their work day to maintain a healthy and sustainable regimen. Suddenly these same workers were thrust into a workplace regulated only by profit, where steam whistles signaled the start and stop of the day.
Massive worker demonstrations in the 1870s marked the beginning of a long, collective fight for the eight-hour day. Protesters were literally gunned down at Haymarket Square in Chicago and labor leaders were hanged for inflammatory speeches in support of this cause. It wasn’t until 1938 that the 40-hr. work week, along with minimum wage guarantees, child labor protections and more, were signed into law with the passing of the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Credit for this historic effort goes first and foremost to generations of workers who held out principle before their personal livelihood. But we also recognize forces and individuals outside of the labor movement who helped to champion this cause. Henry Ford, for example, hated labor unions, but he also understood that the automobile could never be sold to a population that had no time to use it. Ford gave his workers two days off long before the passing of the FLSA, and then went about promoting weekend getaways and road trips.
So, what does this have to do with making a living today as a musician? A question I often hear is “what does the union do for me?”
For starters, consider the dozens of local, publicly-funded orchestras, dance and theatre organizations in metro-Denver. They have given written assurance of compliance with the Fair Labor Standards Act in their grant applications, but too often avoid paying even minimum wage. This may be acceptable for youth orchestras, but certainly not with “professional” organizations with six-figure budgets. The common loophole is to pre-classify performers (the entire orchestra?) as “volunteers.” Economic impact and job creation that should have targeted studied and accomplished performers once again fails to trickle past the bookkeeper.
Protection against this abuse was with you all along, but maybe you didn’t see it. You need only to request to be properly classified as an “employee” before the FLSA guarantees that you will be paid at at least minimum wage from this point forward. You will be protected against employer retaliation for standing up for your rights, and you shall have the right to organize a Union if you so wish.
Now ask yourself again, what does the union do for me?
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