Workers Mobilizing to Get Fair Pay for Music Artists

For the past 80 years, radio stations have used the publicly owned airwaves to make billions of dollars playing music without paying anything to the artists who created it.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) President Roberta Reardon and American Federation of Musicians of the United States and Canada (AFM) President Thomas Lee joined with members of Congress today to announce a strong push by the union movement to pass legislation that supports the fundamental right of American musical artists to be paid for their work.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka (third from left) jams with Rep. Jerrold Nadler, AFTRA President Roberta Reardon, musician Peter Yarrow and Reps. John Conyers and John Garamendi.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka (third from left) jams with Rep. Jerrold Nadler, AFTRA President Roberta Reardon, musician Peter Yarrow and Reps. John Conyers and John Garamendi.

The Performance Rights Act, H.R. 848, would close a loophole in copyright law that allows AM and FM stations to duck royalty payments to performing artists. The United States is one of a handful of countries that do not provide fair performance rights on radio. The others include Qatar, Iraq, Iran, North Korea and China.

Trumka told a Capitol Hill press conference that workers should not be cheated out of their wages:

The labor movement was founded on the principle that a hard day’s work deserves a fair day’s pay. That’s the principle at stake in the fight for the Performance Rights Act.

The reckless greed that drives Wall Street is the same as the unconscionable greed that drives the handful of conglomerate corporate radio executives that control 75 percent of our nation’s radio stations.

The bipartisan legislation, introduced by House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), has 46 co-sponsors. Both the Obama and Bush administrations endorsed the legislation along with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and former House Minority Leader Dick Armey.

Reardon told reporters:

The Performance Rights Act will help thousands of hard-working, middle-income recording artists, legacy artists, and session singers earn a living, provide for themselves and their families and support an economy that works for everyone.

Big Radio has launched a propaganda campaign against the legislation led by Cathy Hughes, owner of the African American mega-company Radio One, which claims the legislation would hurt African American and small radio stations.

Last year, the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU), the A. Philip Randolph Institute (APRI) and the NAACP endorsed the legislation saying it would not hurt black radio and that musicians, like all workers, deserve to be paid a fair wage.

Radio One is a classic example of corporate greed, Trumka pointed out. In the middle of the recession, Radio One executives fired workers, cut salaries and slashed benefits while setting themselves up with millions of dollars in bonuses.

Trumka issued a challenge to members of Congress and activists across the country:

If you care about music, if you care about the right of Americans to get paid for their work, if you care about doing what is right, be a part of the good fight for our performing brothers and sisters.

The Music First Coalition, which includes AFM, AFTRA and the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW), is leading an effort to pass the bill. The AFL-CIO Department for Professional Employees (DPE) also is backing the bill.

*This post originally appeared in AFL-CIO blog on April 27, 2010. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: James Parks had his first encounter with unions at Gannett’s newspaper in Cincinnati when his colleagues in the newsroom tried to organize a unit of The Newspaper Guild. He saw firsthand how companies pull out all the stops to prevent workers from forming a union. He is a journalist by trade, and worked for newspapers in five different states before joining the AFL-CIO staff in 1990. He has also been a seminary student, drug counselor, community organizer, event planner, adjunct college professor and county bureaucrat. His proudest career moment, though, was when he served, along with other union members and staff, as an official observer for South Africa’s first multiracial elections. Author photo by Joe Kekeris.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.