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Last week, MU members came together at Delegate Conference to hold the union accountable for its work over the last two years and vote on motions to decide what the union will be working on in the next two.

Conference was opened by Chair of the MU’s Executive Committee Alex Gascoine, who also chairs Delegate Conference as part of his role.

In his speech, Alex highlighted the particular challenges facing musicians and how the union is working to tackle them. He also focused on the union’s work to be more inclusive of all members, both in terms of further investment in equality, diversity and inclusion work and in the union’s regions and nations of the UK.

They say a week’s a long time in politics. However, during the last two years life has changed enormously and working as a musician has become increasingly challenging.

As we emerged from the pandemic it became apparent that not everything was going to go back to the way it was. For organisations to survive, some musicians had accepted pay freezes that would take years to claw back, and the Self-employed Income Support Scheme introduced by the then Chancellor had badly failed many of our members.

Some venues still haven’t reopened, audiences have taken time to return to our theatres and concert halls, and then the country was hit with the cost-of-living crisis. Fuel bills went through the ceiling, mortgage rates have risen to levels we haven’t seen for years, and high inflation has had a devastating effect on families and the vulnerable in society.

The BBC, the UK’s biggest employer of musicians, is struggling with a “stand-still” Licence Fee settlement forced on the broadcaster by the Government, which has meant savings in the region of £400m need to be found before Charter renewal in 2027. It was inevitable this would impact the BBC’s Performing Groups.

On 7 March this year the MU received formal notification that the BBC intended to inflict 20% cuts on the BBC Orchestras in England and, in their 99th year, would disband the BBC Singers - the UK’s only full-time professional choir and, incidentally, now all members of the Musicians’ Union. If these proposals were to be implemented the impact on our profession, and particularly our freelance colleagues would be devastating.

Tackling the big challenges facing musicians

So what has the Musicians’ Union been doing to support our members?

After a considerable amount of negotiation, we’ve now entered a period of consultation with the BBC. The aim being to secure funding for the BBC’s Orchestras, the BBC Singers and our freelance colleagues for decades to come. The proposals to axe the BBC Singers have now been withdrawn as has the threat of compulsory job losses in the orchestras. There is much work to be done over the coming months however the MU will continue to support the BBC in campaigning for the future funding of the organisation and making sure it continues to invest in all areas of music and the arts.

With our members in the West End we negotiated a new contract that preserved double fees for working on Sundays.

We continue to campaign to secure the future of English National Opera and we’re supporting our members at the Royal Opera House in their dispute over pay.

Working with the Labour Party is an important part of what we do, as is lobbying and building relationships at the highest level both nationally and internationally. This work, not just in England but also in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, is ensuring our members’ voices are heard throughout our nations and regions.

Representing musicians in all four nations of the UK

Which brings me nicely on to the MU north and west of the M25. As a musician living in Scotland, it’s always baffled me that in the MU we refer to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as “regions”. They have their own parliaments, their own languages, their own laws, and over seven thousand of our members live and work in these three nations.

Conference, our union will continue to invest time and money in our nations and regions. We now have eight members of staff working in Scotland covering our Recording and Broadcasting, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, and Orchestra departments in addition to our colleagues working in the Glasgow office.

We have also made significant investment in our Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Department by recruiting a new member of staff and running a hugely successful Member’s Conference in Leeds last year. Equality and diversity will remain at the heart of everything we do, and the MU will continue to campaign and highlight everyone’s right to be treated equally, respectfully and with dignity wherever they work.

As an organisation we now have better coverage throughout the UK than we’ve ever had and as a result we have more influence. This investment in our nations and regions also includes supporting those members of staff who wish to have the flexibility of working from home.

Improving members’ experience of the union

Of course it’s our staff and our activists like you who are doing extraordinary work on behalf of our members and if proof were needed as to how successful we are, it’s in the membership figures. At the end of June this year, membership stood at 33,703.

So what is the greatest and most important benefit we provide to our members? It’s our staff, pure and simple. It’s our staff who pick up the phone, respond to the emails, attend meetings, provide the legal advice and who recover all the unpaid fees.

We have 56 extraordinary, talented and experienced colleagues, led by our Secretariat who work tirelessly in looking after us in our places of work. They uphold all our Collective Agreements and fight for our rights both nationally and internationally. However it’s our freelance members who particularly need our support, musicians who make up nearly 90% of our membership and who often feel overlooked, undervalued and under-represented.

In the Conference Report we get a glimpse of that work and I’m delighted to tell you we have thirty seven members of staff here with us in Birmingham.

A union is its members

Lastly, before we get on to the business of Conference I’d like to thank all our activists, committees, and especially our Executive Committee for the work, dedication and passion you continue to bring in supporting our union. The MU couldn’t function without you.

Delegate Conference 2023. L-R: Andi Hopgood, Rick Finlay, Alex Gascoine, Naomi Pohl, Phil Kear, Matt Wanstall and Eileen Spencer. Image credit: Belinda Enthoven © The MU.

Catch up with the highlights of MU Delegate Conference

Day one saw policy accepted on issues as broad as lobbying for arts funding, protecting BBC Introducing, advocating for instrumental music tuition, and informing members about photo ID for voting purposes.

Motions passed on day two include calls for Welsh language provision in MU communications, how the union can best support carers and those with childcare needs, and future planning for a pandemic to make sure that musicians are not forgotten in Government support schemes.

An emergency motion in support of the RMT union's Save Ticket Offices campaign was also unanimously backed. MU members are encouraged to take part in a consultation on the closure of up to a thousand ticket offices.

Photo ofAlex Gascoine
Thanks to

Alex Gascoine

Alex has been a violinist in the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra for 33 years, and a member of the MU’s EC for 13. In his work as Chair of the EC since January 2022, Chair of the MU’s Orchestra Section and Chair of the MU’s BBC Orchestras Committee, Alex has been at the centre of national negotiations ensuring that musicians’ voices are not only heard but, more importantly, listened to. Alex has represented the MU at many International Federation of Musicians (FIM) conferences and events, highlighting the challenges faced by UK musicians. He has also been able to ensure that the MU supports its members working nationally and internationally, leading the creation of the new role of “Head of International”. By working together, building relationships and ensuring musicians are listened to, Alex believes that the MU can support its members in facing the challenges that lie ahead. Alex has also contributed to programmes on BBC TV, Radio 3 and BBC Scotland.

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