Podcast 2- Putting the Union back into musicians

Hello again. My name is Stephen Brown and I’m standing in the MU General Secretary election.

This is the second in a series of podcasts I’m doing and I’m going to take the opportunity to talk to you about stuff I’ve done over the years. Stuff that has shaped me as a person, as a musician, and as a trade unionist.

Largely though, this podcast is about getting musicians back into the Union and the Union back into musicians. And why it’s important. Not exactly a snappy title I agree, but it’s a vital subject matter for us as a Union if we are to build our strength.

It’s also relevant because it feeds into my ideas presented during my campaign, and what I’d like to achieve if I’m successful in being elected MU General Secretary.

In the round it is actually quite surprising how everything I’ve done over the years all mounts up when you review it.

I believe, as a committed trade unionist, that collaboration with our sister Unions can get results for us too. It’s not always about direct benefits but indirect benefits and longer-term aims. So, there is good sense in working collaboratively and lending our support to other unions and vice versa. 

Consequently, on this aspect I’ve been at the heart of plenty of firsts for the Musicians’ Union. 

For instance, in my role sitting on the Midlands TUC Executive and as Chair of the Creative & Leisure Industry Committee (CLIC) I’ve negotiated groundbreaking agreements, firsts actually in our movement, like I say, and on behalf of MU, Equity, and BECTU members under the TUC banner.

I have negotiated deals with both Coventry City of Culture and Birmingham Commonwealth Games to ensure the creative workforce, including musicians, of course, get paid good industry rates so your work in these events is properly rewarded and your intellectual property rights are respected.

This arose out of my work helping to draft the TUC Cultural Manifesto which sets out the principles upon which public monies should be used in the cultural sector – so employers and engagers respect the value of our work, pay proper fees, and deliver on equality, diversity, and inclusion. 

These TUC Cultural Manifesto principles formed the bedrock of these deals.

Current TUC CLIC projects I am involved in are about attracting inward investment into Birmingham to campaign to build a TV & Film studio to give the region the jobs and cultural recognition it deserves, and fighting for fairer BBC funding for our region. And over the last few days we’ve seen quite some positive movement on this – some success actually with talk of a film studio being built and BBC shifting a programme to good old Brum.

It’s all taken time though.

I well remember me and trade union colleagues traipsing around the big cultural employers and councils in Birmingham, and beyond, delivering copies of the cultural manifesto in person a few years ago – activism in action so to speak. We also held a cultural hustings with mayoral candidates to push this agenda. From little acorns, oak trees grow, and all that. We should never under-estimate the impact our activism has, even if we don’t see it at the time. 

Any Union that forgets these basic principles will lose sight of its goals and drift. This is where I believe we are at nationally in the MU – and it has to change. And that’s my plan – to re-democratise our Union, empower members, be more active as a Union, and give you a bigger voice like it always should have been. All this to refocus our campaigning and rediscover what’s important. Especially on pay and fees.

All of this is rooted in my core principles of fairness, democracy, and equality. 

This is why my campaign slogans of “your issues are my issues and “dare for better” are resonating with so many members. 

I represent the change the MU needs in order to go forward. 

As a musician myself I understand why all of this stuff is so important, and why the Union needs to be more relevant to more musicians. 

I’ve done the portfolio career – having to do other stuff to pay the bills. A combination of other jobs to support my music from time to time, despite having toured Europe, doing festivals and gigs in my time. I’ve been a tutor, and worked in a cycle shop, as well as been a meter reader earning minimum wage just to survive. I know about financial struggles.

Indeed, I well remember over 20 years ago gigging 3 or 4 times a week, getting back at 3am in the morning, only not to go to bed to sleep but to go straight out to work again in a postal sorting office. Changing my gig clothes for a Postie’s uniform. I can tell you I felt like a zombie most of the time. So, now that I’m relatively better off, I don’t forget these times, nor do I forget how at times our members struggle either. And that struggle has never been more evident than now, during Covid, and the current cost of living crisis.

And as a Union, we need to respond to these challenges.

This whole election process has been illuminating for me. I’ve spoken to lots of members who share my concerns for our Union and do want us to do better on pay, and on our campaigns and the like. 

We need to build on what we do well and change what we do that doesn’t work well. And there’s been quite a bit of stuff that hasn’t worked well, if at all, and has been seen by members as too lightweight or ineffective, not trade union enough. Too corporate, too sycophantic. 

I’ve made the need for change quite clear in my campaigning. However, some seem to say they want change but regard any criticism of the Union as wrong or even destructive. I don’t understand this, if you recognise change is needed, why be so defensive or attack others? We need to have these conversations, all of us, together, to improve things for our members. You don’t achieve results by closing people down, or by walking away, or by speaking badly about others’ ideas. This is about good policy, not egos.

My activism, both as a trade unionist and community campaigner, where I’ve fought alongside and on behalf of disadvantaged and wronged people sends a strong message I believe. 

One of self-sacrifice, service to others for no personal gain, better values, and not just being in it for the money. Values are important. And as I said in the regional nomination meetings, cannot be bought and sold, nor gained merely from employment in our industry. 

When we need change, then change is what we should aim for. Not just tinkering, as some might have you believe is sufficient. Einstein had a lot to say on the subject of continuing with failing practices. And he was correct of course, he was a genius. I don’t profess to be a genius but I will listen to people, to members, to improve what we do and how we do it. In these challenging times we should be less concerned about how that might upset the status quo and more concerned about how we win for members.

I offer an organising agenda, and as part of that we need a dedicated organising team. A team to oversee our campaigns, to coordinate everything we do, our efforts on collective bargaining, to organise and empower members, to research our subjects properly to help make us more effective in everything we do. A team that will report directly to the General Secretary. And of course to work directly with our staff and activists to achieve results. A team with a dedicated budget and a fighting fund so that when we need to take action we won’t be held back in getting the job done.

Changing the rules is a must if we are to move forward. From the industry to equality actions, and in giving you the members, the power back. Fixed limits on terms and break periods on sitting on committees will work hand in hand with an organising agenda so that you are encouraged to make the most of your membership. Better committee member training too – and to be more involved to get the Union you want and the Union we all deserve. To be the best we can be at everything we do. 

And may I add not being afraid to speak up or speak out against things that are wrong. Fear is not the way forward, we’ve been held back by this emotion for too long as a Union internally and externally in my opinion.

I plan to offer hope and vision and leadership. This is more than being about a mere job description for the role of General Secretary. A job description is a start not an end in itself. We are a trade union, not a widget factory. 

The Musicians’ Union is supposed to do what it says on the tin. This hasn’t always been true of late and it’s why I am on a mission to put musicians back into the Union, and the Union back into musicians.

You’ve been listening to Stephen Brown – candidate in the Musicians’ Union General Secretary election.