In a world where writer strikes have become synonymous with Hollywood, the recent strike by the Writers Guild of America (WGA) on May 2, 2023, has added a new chapter to the rising tide of the American labor movement. While the entertainment industry has seen its fair share of labor disputes, it is the music industry that has remained relatively silent, hindered by legal barriers and a lack of organization. However, the winds of change are blowing as musicians, supported by solidarity unions and musicians’ organizations, seek to reshape their industry and demand fairer wages and working conditions.
Drawing parallels with the historic struggles of the American Federation of Musicians during their strike from 1942 to 1944, musicians today find themselves facing similar challenges. Back then, AFM fought for a fair share of the profits generated by new technologies such as vinyl records. Their victory led to record labels allocating a percentage of sales to a trust fund for musicians, ensuring their financial security. But, subsequent decades witnessed the erosion of labor wins under the anti-union policies of the Reagan administration, leaving musicians vulnerable and their organizing efforts thwarted.
A pivotal moment in this struggle occurred in 1984 when the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that composers and lyricists were independent contractors, not employees, thereby denying them the right to form a union. This decision not only dealt a blow to their organizing ability but also set a precedent that continues to impact musicians today. With the rise of independent contractors in the modern music industry, the protections offered by the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935 no longer extend to many musicians, leaving them with limited collective bargaining power.
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