The back room of Michelangelo's coffeehouse on State Street is typically a quiet place where UW students go to study. But on a recent Friday afternoon - day 26 of the Madison union protests - the espresso-drenched space buzzes with the urgency of a political war room. Small groups of organizers huddle around wooden tables, plotting strategies and debating ways to resist.
And Ken Fitzsimmons, guitarist and vocalist with the Madison Celtic rock band the Kissers, sits across from me, explaining why unions are more than a remote ideal for some local musicians. Fitzsimmons and 170 other working musicians in the area are members of the American Federation of Musicians, Local 166.
"Part of what we do is provide solidarity with other musicians," he says. "If a member of our local is in trouble and needs help, we'll come to your aid. There are situations where musicians get screwed. Someone will promise to pay them for a performance, but they don't end up getting paid. We're here as a collective voice to be a safety net against that."
Brian Whitty, trombone player in the Madison Jazz Orchestra and president of AFM Local 166, sits with us. "I first joined the union in 1980, in La Crosse," he says. "Our membership is extremely diverse. Some are university music professors. Others are auto mechanics by day, rockers by night." AFM Local 166 represents an area that stretches north to Wausau, west to La Crosse, south to Rock County and east to Jefferson County.
"The majority of our membership is made up of classical musicians," says Whitty.
The union collectively represents the labor interests of Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra members; WCO players who participate as "subs" and "extras" are not included in the union's agreement with the orchestra.
"The agreement addresses a variety of working conditions for the [WCO] members - everything from wage to attire to be worn for specific performances," says Whitty. Local 166 is negotiating the first collective bargaining agreement between the Madison Symphony Orchestra and its members.
Whitty says the local chapter also represents the interests of national touring acts who are AFM members. When these members play concerts in Madison, they use the AFM Local 166 contract to sign an agreement with the hosting venue.
"Over 100 touring musicians file with Local 166 every year," says Whitty.
Annual dues are $111, or $64 for six months. Fitzsimmons says direct benefits include assistance with contract language, legal aid, access to travel and instrument insurance, and inexpensive web hosting services.
AFM Local 166 has been active in supporting Madison's union protests during the past month, as the organization's website, afm166.org, documents. "We will not stand idle as the rights of our citizens are swept away!" reads the home page.
The American Federation of Musicians is part of the umbrella of unions that nationally belong to the AFL-CIO. "I don't know many local musicians who file contracts with local clubs," says Fitzsimmons. "It's not like rock clubs are our enemy. We want them to thrive."
Fitzsimmons says the union ultimately is shaped by its members. "Some people ask me, 'What's the union going to do for me?'" he says. "I tell them, you are the union. What do you want it to do?"
"The union is about all musicians coming together to help resolve the kinds of conflicts we might face when we're working," says Whitty. "When you've got no other resource, we are there to help you resolve it."
As part of Madison Music Foundry's Plugged In event, AFM Local 166 hosts an information session at the Frequency on March 21, 5:30-7:30 p.m.