The 1910s and 1920s was the time when the first timid attempts to unionise workers took place. Unions tried to unite workers so to give them the power of numbers against employers, but they also tried to put rules on workers’ behaviour. And because they enforced rules and standardisation, unions also tried to apply sanctions when rules were not met.
These first attempts had very varied results and generally quite a hard time. This was made worst by the fact that most unions were segregated, so many workers (especially African Americans) refused to enter unions on this ground.
The American Federation of Musicians (the musicians’ union) was organised in many ‘locals’ designated with a number. Locals had all a very distinctive life based on regional situations.
Two of the most important were located in the two foremost cities where jazz was played.
New York City – Local 802
New York Local 802 was quite unique in that it exhibited a great degree of tolerance to internal division. A great variety of ethnic interests and groups coexisted more or less peacefully. There were Irish and Jewish organisations, but also flutist organisations. Ethnic minorities and instrumental minorities could retain their identity and voice and still belong to the union.
This allowed to individual musicians to sometimes maintain separate commitments while still being part of the union.
Chicago – Local 208
In Chicago, New Orleans musicians, who were a majority of jazzmen, seemed to be largely uninterested in the union. Despite the union guaranteed higher incomes, black performers worked in a community where segregation greatly circumscribed employment and attitudes toward black entertainment.
The management of Local 208 was also heavily influence by the music ideals of a Defender columnist, Dave Peyton. He upheld an idea of proper music that was more adherent to the European classic standard and although he was not a union man, his ideas appear to have had great influence on the Local’s attitude toward music. The union had authority in finding jobs, so jazzmen ended up being penalised on this ground. This was probably why many Chicago jazzmen never cared to join the union.
Ogren, Kathy J., The Jazz Revolution. Twenties America and the Meaning of Jazz. Oxford University Press, New York, 1989
Associated Musicians of Greater New York – Local 802 at the time of the Harlem Renaissance
Black Past – Race, Gender, Jazz & Local 493: Black Women Musicians in Seattle 1920-1955