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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Time to take stock

By Norman Lebrecht / January 31, 2001

The Musicians' Union is facing a long, cold winter

IT has been clear for some while that all is not well at the Musicians' Union. Four years ago, we reported that the union was being sued by about 200 of its members over a huge royalties fund - as much as £67 million, by some accounts - that it was supposed to be distributing among former players in recording bands. The union refused to divulge how the money was divvied up, and to whom. Many of the musicians concerned were needy; some died before receiving payments they believed were due to them.

Lawyers for the session players had to go to court to extract the tiniest squib of information from uncooperative union officials. The MU, representing 31,000 musicians from wedding bands to opera stars, had a reputation to defend for being hard-line and hard-headed.

Faced with spiralling costs, a stubborn trumpeter, Freddie Staff by name, appealed to the Commissioner for Trade Unions for help. The TUC ombudsman, in a landmark ruling, agreed to fund his case against the MU, which comes to court on Monday.

"All I require," says Staff, 73, "is the information that will enable us to check that all the guys were paid equitably, and that the money went to the people who earned it, or to their dependants." The fight, so far, will have cost the union a five-figure sum in legal fees, but that is the least of its worries.

In October 1999, the union's veteran general secretary, Dennis Scard, was re-elected to his post. When a handful of members objected that they had not been given time to put up an opposing candidate, the election was invalidated. At last November's rerun, a little-known East Londoner, Derek Kay, upset the odds and, after three recounts, defeated Scard by a margin of eight votes out of 8,000. What happened next is the subject of further litigation.

The following morning, a "bitterly disappointed" Scard notified Kay that his campagin had attracted an official complaint from a member of the union's executive committee (EC). Kay, who had backed the demands of Freddie Staff and the unhappy session players, was accused of "bringing the union into disrepute".

The charges against him were that his website had accused union officials of "malpractices" and that he had claimed that the MU was "effectively bankrupt". When Kay turned up at union headquarters to take up his post, he was met at the door by officials and escorted around the building, but he was not, by his account, allowed to enter the general secretary's office. Union officials maintain that he was, but will not comment further pending the next proceedings.

Four days before Christmas, Kay was told that he had been found guilty on three charges. Twelve days ago, he was informed that the EC had imposed the maximum possible sentence - indefinite suspension from the union and removal from office.

Last Friday, Kay went to the High Court to challenge the verdict. The court refused to interfere until his appeal, to a select committee of the EC, had been heard. Pending the appeal, however, he remained general secretary of the MU. Kay returned to union headquarters, only to be presented at the door with a letter, informing him that he had been sent on "garden leave" and would not be allowed on the premises until after the appeal.

"When members learn what the charges against me are," says Kay, "they are going to be perturbed. My aim is to maintain the line so that members can finally get to know what's going on in this union."

And there we had better leave the matter for fear of anticipating what looks like being a tasty pair of briefs for silks of several chambers. But, when the litigation and leadership wars are over, musicians should start putting some tough questions to their salaried officials.

Why, for instance, did the MU drive film-soundtrack work out of Britain by the rates they set? Why does it refuse to allow state-funded orchestras to exploit the concessions it gave the BBC bands, allowing their performances to be reissued any number of times without extra payment? And why does it still believe that restrictive practices benefit the musical economy? Is it coincidence that British orchestral musicians are now earning less than players anywhere in western Europe? These are issues that need to be thrashed out when the light finally shines through the MU's cobwebbed curtains.

17 November 2000: [UK News] Election row brings discord to the Musicians' Union
19 November 1996: [UK News] Musicians to sue union over 'lost' royalties
19 November 1996: [UK News] Session men seek quick answers from union over mystery of royalties cash

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]




(c) La Scena Musicale 1999