7th May 2013 marks the 120th anniversary of the founding of the Musicians’ Union.
In the late 19th century, organised resistance to employers regularly put jobs for musicians at risk. However, in April 1893, after an incident at the Gaiety Theatre, orchestral players in Manchester received an anonymous circular:
‘You are requested to attend a meeting in Manchester on 7th May 1893 to discuss forming a Union for Orchestral Players,’ it read. ‘The Union that we require is a protection Union. One that will protect us from Amateurs, protect us from unscrupulous employers, and protect us from ourselves.’
Attached were a set of rudimentary Rules for comment. Players were invited to sign the form and return it to an address in Old Trafford. The form stated:
TO MANCHESTER MUSICIANS
The phrase “We ought to have a union” is often uttered by musicians especially when compelled (for want of society) to rehearse etc., without remuneration. Unfortunately, with the phrase the matter drops. No-one seems inclined to start a Union, and yet on all sides it is admitted that one is necessary.
“Hull has a lesson for all workers. It is a lesson of one word – Organise! Organise! Organise!!! No worker can afford to remain outside a Union. Free Labour? Bah! Get into your societies, you silly chattering daws! Such freedom as yours isn’t worth a decent wage; such freedom as the Unionists has is worth money, and is justified by independence. Free! You will never be free till every one of you acknowledge his society.
“It is a pity to hear some Unionists snarling about their leaders. Where would they be without them? They are necessary – a necessary evil if you like, but necessary. You must follow somebody.”
(Followed by an extract from the Sunday Chronicle):
The Union that we require is a Protecting Union, one that will protect us from Amateurs, protect us from unscrupulous employers, and protect us from ourselves. A Union that will guarantee our receiving a fair wage for engagements. A society that will keep the amateur in his right place, and prevent his going under prices. A Union that will see you are paid for extra rehearsals, and in time raise salaries to what they ought to be.
If you are in favour of a Musicians’ Union, sign the following and forward to
32 Clifford Street
Joe Williams, a 21 year old clarinettist at the Comedy Theatre, was the author of the letter.
His grandfather was lawyer, his father and three brothers were theatre musicians, but his mother had the strongest influence on him. Kate Leigh came from a famous theatre family and became the AMU’s first Assistant Secretary, earning her the soubriquet ‘Mother of the Union’.
At least 20 musicians turned up to the May meeting, and Joe revealed his identity and his intentions.
By then he had persuaded disgruntled Birmingham musicians with similar ideas to join in an ‘amalgamated’ venture.
Dundee, Glasgow, Liverpool and Newcastle were the next to join, and in the November he announced the formal launch of the Amalgamated Musicians’ Union with over 1,000 members. London-based Yorkshire violinist J T Carrodus was President.
From the start the AMU outshone the London Orchestra Association formed in the same year. The LOA rejected amateur and part-time musicians, Joe’s friendly advances, and the militancy of the new industrial unions.
The AMU signed up anyone who sought to earn a living from music, and challenged managements in a series of bitter recognition disputes. In an optimistic attempt the AMU had more than doubled its membership with branches in over a dozen provincial towns and cities.
The Union had begun.
Posted: May 2, 2013