Unions and Jazz in Philadelphia: A Problematic, Informative, and Instructive History 

art of the clef club in neon style

Last semester, more than 90% of the Swarthmore Resident Assistants (RAs) voted to unionize, capping the first successful union campaign in the college’s history. The vote happened amidst a wave of visible unionization and labor organizing across the country in the past few years. From actors and writers striking in Hollywood to Starbucks workers to university faculty across California, collective bargaining seems more nationally relevant and important as ever. 

In order to both contextualize the contemporary unionization movement and to think about what the goals of worker organizing should be, it makes sense to turn to the past. Specifically, I think the history of musicians’ unions in Philadelphia can shed some light on these questions, especially as it reveals the reality that labor organization and racial segregation have often been quite intertwined. Also, for musicians who make money playing music in clubs, cafes, and theaters across the city, the workplace is quite decentralized. This necessitates that their organizing be grounded in and throughout the community, and, as is clear in Philadelphia, unions become centered around broader social networks and mobilization.

Musicians have been unionized in Philadelphia for more than 125 years. However, Philadelphia’s chapter of the national American Federation of Musicians, Local 77 which was founded in 1898, did not admit African Americans until after the civil rights movement, seven decades later. In 1935, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt passed the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) which radically increased the power and rights of unions and yet did not include any mandate against racial discrimination within them, which groups like the NAACP were pushing for. That same year, receiving no help from the NLRA which allowed Local 77 to continue their policy of racial exclusion, Black musicians formed their own branch AFM, Local 247. The emergence of organized Black musicians reflected the development of the music at the time as well. Jazz, which originated and developed as a distinctly African American form of music, was becoming extremely popular across the country; even so, many white, classical musicians refused to respect it. Local 247, led by Black jazz musicians in Philadelphia, was a rejection of the condescension and hostility toward African Americans and their musical contributions perpetrated by members of Local 77, many of whom considered European classical music to be superior. 

As Philadelphia soon became one of the American centers of jazz in the mid-1900s, Local 247 developed into a community institution committed to Black cultural, economic, and political power. The best jazz musicians of the time, including John Coltrane, Nina Simone, and Dizzy Gillespie were members, and the success of jazz in Philadelphia reflected the success of Local 247. The community involvement of the union was embodied by its social wing, the Clef Club, which is still a thriving performance space, social club, and music school in Center City. The Clef Club and Local 247 more broadly were effective at both organizing musicians to fight for better pay and work opportunities as well as connecting members of the community in the broader fight against racial and economic oppression. 

During the civil rights movement and the codification of desegregation in the 1960s, many racially exclusionary unions began the process of integration, including Local 77. However, this meant that many of the organizations across the country that emphasized Black history, culture, and economic power in the face of oppressive political and social structures began to disband. In Philadelphia, Local 247 did not go quietly, but eventually, it was forced by the AFM to dissolve into Local 77. While the union’s goal of integration and racial equality was (and still is) so important, many Black musicians in Philadelphia were understandably wary of the possibility that the strength of their advocacy for African Americans would be compromised if Local 247 were to go. So, the Clef Club was created by Black union leaders to continue Local 247’s social network of African American solidarity in 1966, two years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, in anticipation of the potential dissolution of the union. Local 77 even sued the Clef Club, claiming that they had the right to all of the assets that had been transferred to the club before Local 247 disbanded. Luckily, the suit was unsuccessful, but even so, it’s clear the intensity of hostility and racial animus even after integration. As many in Local 247 certainly knew, the solution to structural racism within an institution, such as the newly integrated Local 77 Union, can never be fully dealt with simply through integration. Yet Local 247, unlike its exclusionary counterpart in Philadelphia, did not prohibit anyone from joining. The fact that their membership was 12% white underscores the resilient possibility for the rejection of racial exclusion even when Black musicians were faced with it constantly. 

Because the labor movement has been so defined by racism, it is essential that the current wave of organization understands and emphasizes that true worker solidarity is impossible without racial solidarity. There seems to be progress in this direction, for while the power of unions has declined significantly since the 1960s and the emphasis on racial inclusion has certainly become more central. There are still severe instances of racial discrimination, but nonetheless, there’s a strong argument to be made that today unions are “essential for eliminating racism.” 

The history of the Clef Club and Local 247 offers a reminder of the challenges and resiliency of labor organizing, as well as a potential vision for the long-term role of unions. The musicians of Local 247 and the Clef Club, because of the decentralized nature of their “workplace”, reveal the possibility of collective action as something grounded in the community as a whole. Unions, at their best, can be tools that create long-standing social networks, unite the community, and, in doing so, solidify the collective power of workers who otherwise would be quite politically isolated.

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