American Musicians’ Unions in the 19th Century
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Reception to follow
Most professional orchestra musicians in the United States after the Civil War belonged to musicians’ unions. Unions were organized on a city-by-city basis — the New York Musical Mutual Protective Union, the Philadelphia Musical Association, the Chicago Musical Society, the Cincinnati Musicians’ Protective Association, the Musicians’ Mutual Protective Union of San Francisco, and many others. By 1896, according to one count, there were over 75 local musicians unions.
Although independent, local musicians’ unions resembled one another a great deal in structure and day-to-day operations. They included both the men who played in bands and orchestras and the “leaders” who organized, contracted and conducted the bands and orchestras. They sought to establish and maintain a monopoly on musical employment. And they tried to regulate wages by publishing a “price list” for each and every type of musical job
The last quarter of the 19th century saw a series of attempts to unite these local unions into a national organization. The most important were the National League of Musicians (founded, 1886) and the American Federation of Musicians (founded 1896). The NLM and the AFM engaged in a short but intense rivalry between 1896 and 1903, with the AFM emerging victorious.
John Spitzer teaches music history at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. His chief research interests are the history of the orchestra, American song, and the relations between Western and non-Western music. He has published articles on these and related topics in The Journal of the American Musicological Society, the Journal of Musicology, Musical Quarterly, Early Music, the Journal of Music Theory, and American Music, as well as music reviews and articles in newspapers, magazines, handbooks, dictionaries and encyclopedias. His book on The Birth of the Orchestra, co-written with Neal Zaslaw, was published by Oxford University Press in 2004.