A Brief History of Local 6

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Local 6’s lively history

Before the Quake

Musicians have always wanted fair treatment and better pay. For example, in 1850 musicians demanded a wage increase before they would perform in the celebration of California’s admission to the United States. To their dismay, the demand was refused. The festivities were held without music.

In 1869, musicians in San Francisco made their first attempt at organizing a trade union: it failed. In 1874, a second attempt was made and it failed. But the seeds had been planted, and on September 3, 1885, a group of professional musicians met to organize “a society for mutual protection and for the furthering of musical interests”. Local 6 was born.

On the national scene, a musicians association was formed in 1886, but eventually failed. Ten years later in 1896, The American Federation of Musicians was chartered and became part of the American Federation of Labor (which later became the AFL-CIO).

Back in San Francisco, membership was growing. The fledgling union went from a basement office behind a saloon to an above ground office to a large hall in the heart of the performing arts district near Powell and O’Farrell. In 1901, ‘Handsome Gene’ Eugene E. Schmitz (1864-1928), violinist and President of Local 6 was elected Mayor of San Francisco. He was the first union labor leader in U.S. history to be elected mayor of a city.

Popular music by this time had changed dramatically. Although shunned at first, by the late 1890’s ragtime was king. Opera also came into favor as Victorian Americans found a taste for “high culture.” And then the earthquake struck in 1906.

After the Quake

Everything was lost, the union building destroyed. All records burned in the fire.

But Local 6 regrouped quickly and soon bought a building at 68 Haight Street.

Eventually, Local 6 developed scales for every imaginable musical engagement including grand opera, comic opera, operettas, spectaculars, theatres, stage bands, minstrels, oratorios, concerts, concert halls, afternoon concerts, promenade concerts, open air concerts, restaurant concert halls, church music, dancing for socials, parties and balls, teas, receptions, lawn parties, lodges, dancing schools, banquets, dinners at hotels, weddings, theatre parties, picnics and excursions, fourth of July festivities, general celebrations, parades and serenades, political engagements, funerals, public parks, gardens, outdoor sports, horse shows, horse races, band wagons, fairs, circuses and menageries, encampments, military, escorts, business openings, ground breakings, summer resorts, and of course, special engagements.

In 1911, The San Francisco Symphony was founded. Membership continued to grow and in 1924, Local 6 purchased land at 230 Jones Street in the Tenderloin. At the time this was the heart of downtown San Francisco. The building became home for the next 75 years.

Hardcore Racism

African Americans were not allowed to join Local 6.

In 1924, the Negro Musicians of San Francisco and the Bay Area were granted a charter by the AFM to do business as Local 648. The local headquarters was in Oakland. They had the same jurisdictional boundaries as Local 6.

In San Francisco, black musicians could only play in black neighborhoods, such as the Western Addition. Very few club owners hired black bands east of Van Ness (downtown). In 1934, Local 6 pressured a downtown club owner to hire a white band, even though the gig was under a Local 648 contract. One night, Local 6 musicians just showed up before the black band, and started playing. Local 648 filed a lawsuit against Local 6, and lost. That’s the way it was back then. Local 6 then filed a complaint to the AFM who in turn revoked Local 648’s charter, saying they should have resolved it within the AFM, not the courts. The black musicians were placed under the stewardship of Local 6.

As a subsidiary of Local 6, the black musicians paid work dues and membership dues, but they had no rights. They could not vote on wage scales or job condition matters, and they could not participate in the death benefit. They had their own officers and were housed upstairs in the Jones Street building.

In 1943, AFM President James C. Petrillo abolished all subsidiary locals and advised the white locals to accept the black musicians as equal members or he would grant them their own charters. Local 6 refused to accept the black musicians. Local 669 was chartered.

Over the next 15 years, several failed attempts were made to merge the two locals. It took action by the State of California to make it happen. On April 1, 1960, because of the Fair Employment Practice Act, the two locals were finally merged.

The Rise of the Classical Musician

By the 1950’s, symphony orchestras nationwide were disgruntled with the AFM.

They wanted better pay, better working conditions, and more control over their contracts. Many orchestra contracts kept the musicians in low-paying part-time jobs without any benefits. In the early 1960s, the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) and the Organization of Canadian Symphony Musicians (OCSM) were formed within the AFM to address these demands.

In the following years, growth of seasons, improved wages, and implementation of benefits such as health and welfare all contributed to a nationwide flourishing of classical musicians. By the 1970s Bay Area orchestras were the largest employers of musicians, and symphonic musicians were paying a significant portion of work dues that helped to fund Local 6.

The Fall of the Casual Musician

As the orchestral musicians became more important to Local 6, the casual musicians were slowly losing ground in the clubs and private party areas. There are a few reasons for this erosion of power.

The labor movement has enemies. Legislative battles are constantly being fought. The first big loss came in 1947 with the Taft-Hartley Act. This Act eliminated the “closed shop” system, which said only union members could be hired on a union job site. Also, sympathy strikes were abolished. (For example waiters in a restaurant could not strike to support musicians on strike, or vise versa).

The second big defeat came in the form of The Consent Decree of 1979. This stated that the bandleader was the employer—not the club, or restaurant, or father of the bride. Overnight, longstanding Local 6 contracts became null and void throughout the Bay Area.

Another reason was the disregard for changes in popular culture. About every ten or twenty years a new musical genre comes along that is different from the previous generations view of what is considered “music.” The first example is Ragtime. The Union hated it! And then jazz. That’s not music! Eventually those styles became the norm. Skip forward to rhythm and blues and rock and roll. The Union neglected the new styles while at the same time it was losing its hold on the entertainment industry. Failing to accept the music of the huge baby boomer generation was a big mistake. When the union finally came around, it was too late. Recent trends in music (punk, new wave, rap, metal, hip hop, DJ’s, etc.) were not even on the radar.

Women Find a Voice

The music industry is still a male dominated industry. This situation is changing.

In 1984, three women were elected to the Local 6 Board of Directors. The same year, a woman served briefly as Vice-President. In 1989, Local 6 member Melinda Wagner was elected Secretary-Treasurer. She became President mid-term in 1996 and has been elected President ever since. Then came the election in 2001 of Florence Nelson as Secretary-Treasurer of the AFM, making her one of very few female officers of an International Labor Union.

Currently, approximately one third of the Local 6 Membership are women.

The Post-Modern Musicians Union

In 1998, Local 6 moved out of the Tenderloin and into its current building on Ninth Street. The facilities offer a professional yet casual environment perfect for administrative work, rehearsals, recordings, meetings, and showcases.

The goal of the union is the same as it ever was; to benefit and protect musicians; to give them strength through collective bargaining agreements; to insure that they are properly paid for their work; and that the work is performed under fair working conditions.

Local 6 Membership peaked in 1968-69 at approximately 6,000. Currently, membership hovers around 2,000. Today (2003), a steady trickle of new members find what they need, and stick around.

The Local 6 jurisdiction covers San Francisco, Marin, and San Mateo County’s, and the coastal cities of the East Bay including Alameda, Oakland, Berkeley, Piedmont, Emeryville and Albany.

Sources for this article include:

  • Pamphlet: The Centennial History of San Francisco Musicians Union, Local 6, 1885-1985.
  • Local 6 1903 Membership Directory & Price List.
  • International Musician October, 1996, “Celebrating Our Centennial” issue.
  • Article: The AFM: Its History And Its Future by Susan Borenstein.
  • Earl Watkins, Local 6 Board of Directors.