AFM Local 1000 President, Tret Fure, will attend the Great Labor Arts Exchange this year to honor her local’s 20th birthday at its birthplace, and she encourages her members to attend too. This is where it all began” said Fure.
The Great Labor Arts Exchange, formerly known as the Song Exchange was organized thirty-five years ago by Joe Glazer in Silver Spring, MD at what was then called the Meany Center. The objective was to bring traveling musicians together to present new songs tied to union and social justice activism. And it did!
Charlie King described the group of traveling musicians attending the Song Exchange in the early days as “geographic gadflies” that didn’t fit into AFM’s structure for geographic locals. It was not possible to join every local where they performed for one night as soloists or small ensembles. Yet most of them embraced the concept of unionism and many performed regularly for union gatherings. The Song Exchange became the annual meeting of traveling musicians/ activists.
John McCutcheon recalls a 1983 lunch discussion about union war stories such as the airline and mine strikes and the solidarity workers who demonstrated showed as they entered the belly of the beast. Charlie King asked, “Wouldn’t it be great if we felt the way these people felt about their unions?” At that moment, the paradigm of “a Geographical Un-Local” for traveling musicians was born, and the New Deal Committee was created. Essentially, an organizing committee to build a structure that would suit the needs of musicians on the road, the New Deal Committee started to organize other traveling troubadours they met on their journeys. Over the next decade the New Deal Committee met annually at the Song Exchange to report their individual progress to the group.
John O’Conner was the organizer of the New Deal Committee and actively recruited new followers and moved the project forward. One of the first steps was to send out a survey to traveling musicians to get feedback on what they would like the union to do for them. Many remember recruiting other traveling musicians and spreading through the “Showcase Free Zone” held at Folk Alliance. It was a hotel suite where the New Deal Committee invited musicians to come and sing together for the joy of singing in a spirit of community and solidarity. Many came for the free beer and peanuts; still, they were willing to stay to discuss the merits of a union for traveling musicians.
Charlie King was known as New Deal’s “pension guy.” He created a national scale so that when a contract was filed the contributions would be uniform. King said that his desire to make music his vocation, and to have the freedom to choose jobs he wanted to do were what motivated him to develop the pension plan for traveling musicians. When he presented his employers with a contract they would realize that performing was his job, and he needed to be paid. “Charlie was relentless, eventually using AFM’s own language to shape the final proposal to show that it could be done,” said John McCutcheon, crediting King’s refusal to take “no” for an answer in his pursuit of access to the AFM pension plan as the foundation for successful recruitment of new members.
One year AFM International President Marty Emerson attended the Song Exchange. Anne Feeney, a relative newcomer to the event, asked him when AFM would recognize traveling musicians and let them form their own local. Emerson’s response was, “Interesting idea.” Encouraged, the New Deal Committee started to submit proposals to AFM international. With each accepted proposal the international became more responsive.
John O’Conner remembers feeling relief and gratitude when the traveling musicians were first allowed to send their contracts in to the international and their staff would work out all of the details with the locals along the tour. Another step on the path to recognizing differences between traveling musicians and the rest of AFM’s membership led to the creation of a phone number (1-800 ROAD GIG) to call if the artists were not paid after the performance and had to move on the next day.
In 1991 the New Deal Committee attended the AFM national convention and proposed an amendment to the constitution to create a local for traveling musicians. It was accepted.
At the Song Exchange in 1993 John McCutcheon took his turn at the microphone and said he wasn’t going to sing. He conducted what he called a “membership auction” to get fifty signatures to create the local. He did, and Local 1000 was born.
The Song Exchange evolved into the Great Labor Arts Exchange, and is celebrating its thirty-fifth anniversary this year. The event is still a gathering place for activists in social justice, environmental issues, and unions. It is both a retreat and a training ground for organizers and those who want to learn how to use labor culture to advance their cause more effectively by using, music, posters, spoken word, dance and creativity.
This year the theme is Gonna Take Us All. Many will recognize the theme as the title to one of many great songs written by the late Jon Fromer, a member of Local 1000 and a regular attendee of the Great Labor Arts Exchange. Two of the many exciting events planned are a song writing contest and a photo contest with cash prizes. All AFM members are cordially invited to attend. For more information and online registration, please visit: http://www.laborheritage.org/?p=1309