It seems that union power is trying to hitch its comeback to the big band swing music revival. In late 1997, the 19-piece Count Basie Orchestra became the first unionized big band, according to Bill Moriarty, president of Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians. The decision came after a 20-year veteran of the band was fired and band members organized for the right to receive pension benefits, he said.
“Historically big bands on the road have not been covered as thoroughly as people in town,” says Bill Hughes, a Basie trombonist for 38 years. “If you didn’t take care of your own pension, you were dependent on social security.” The Kansas-City bred Count, who virtually invented swing with Duke Ellington in the 1920s, died in 1984, but his band has continued to tour.
Although joining the union’s $1.2 billion pension fund was the major enticement to join the union, the collective bargaining agreement with Count Basie Enterprises includes other perks. Whenever the orchestra flies overseas, Hughes, as a senior member, will now be able to stretch out in business class.
Other agreement terms limit the number of miles the band can travel before having to perform on any given day. And Local 802 intends to take its union message to the handful of other big bands. “There are a few bands out there that I think are ripe for unionization,” says Moriarty, who refused to name future recruits.