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  • Teresa Fream, violin

We are the Labor in Labor Day

Do you get told regularly how lucky you are to have the job you have? I do.

Don’t get me wrong, I do feel fortunate…because anyone who discounts the importance of good fortune probably was born on third base and thinks they hit a triple, if you know what I mean. But if you were NOT born on third base, you probably worked hard to get where you are. I know I did. I wanted to become a musician, and since the age of ten I worked to accomplish that. After about 15 years of working my way up in the field, I landed my dream job at Lyric Opera of Chicago. I still work hard every day.

Yes, folks, this artsy, rarified, life I lead is work – real work, hard work. It’s not just music, it’s a job with real responsibilities, with all the ups and downs of any other job. Do I love it? You bet I do. The fact that I love my job does not make it less of a job. I’m glad my doctor loves being a doctor, but…well, you get my point.

So, why am I so proud to be a member of my union?

Labor Day was born from great conflict and violence, the growing pains of the industrial United States trying to find balance between the powerful and the powerless, rich and poor, those well cared for and those with no one to stand up for them. Great things came from the emergence of organized labor – better work safety, reasonable hours, overtime, maternity leave, and many other things. Unions fought hard for their members, and there is new research that suggests this helped boost wages and conditions for everyone, not just union workers.[1] It is also shown that unions help reduce gender and racial wage gaps across the board, contributing to equality in society.[2] Unions bring reliable standards to the workplace, and that's to the employer's benefit also.

It might be tempting to believe that the big fights have already been fought, but this is not true. Societal changes and technological developments affect everything – even a business as old and venerable as ours. For as long as music is produced by human beings, there will be challenges for work safety and efficiency, and changing social mores constantly present new challenges in the workplace. And think about it: who knows better than the musicians, the labor force, what will keep us healthy on the job and enable us to perform at the high level befitting a major opera company? Important knowledge lives in the labor force, and that’s one reason it is so good to speak up with a unified voice.

Over the last few months we have shared with our readers some ways in which our musicians are involved in their communities. Sometimes we give back in ways that reflect our skills by offering free performances. Sometimes we just get out there and do the menial tasks that need to be done at the local food bank or animal shelter. But that’s not special – we’re just hard-working, active members of our communities with houses, children, and mortgages, trying to do a little extra to make the world around us a better place. In a time when it seems that everything pulls us apart, we can look to what binds us together. Standing shoulder to shoulder with our fellow union musicians feels healthy and real.

Instead of overalls and steel-toed safety boots, our work clothes happen to be tuxedos and tailcoats, long black dresses and high heels. But work we do.

On this Labor Day 2018, I would like to thank all who went before us and fought hard for our rights as American workers. We honor you and carry on what you started. And I would like to celebrate that we musicians are part of the vast labor force that this holiday honors.

[1] “Unions and Inequality Over the Twentieth Century: New Evidence from Survey Data,” Henry Farber, Daniel Herbst and Ilyana Kuziemko (Princeton), and Suresh Naidu (Columbia)

[2] “Why You Should Care About Unions” (Even if you’re not in one.) Meagan Day and Bhaskar Sunkara, New York Times August 8, 2018

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