I'm on my way to my 9th consecutive AFM Convention (8 as a voting delegate). If memory serves, Tom Lee ran for one or another AFM office at every one of those conventions. I can recall voting against him only once.
This convention will mark the second time I vote against Tom.
When Tom was elected President in 2001, I thought he'd do OK. He wasn't my ideal AFM president, but neither was the incumbent. He was obviously smart, he had good people skills, he was clearly politically skilled, he had some ideas about how the AFM could serve members that, while they weren't my priorities, were good ideas for the most part. I'd heard good things about him during his time as a Local officer. And he clearly got along with the RMA. What could go wrong?
As we now know, the answer was “pretty much everything.” It turned out that Tom had a fatal weakness for a president of a labor union: he couldn't handle criticism. No one likes being criticized, of course, and Tom has had to deal with his share of nasty anonymous attacks over the years. But the leader of any democratic organization has to deal with having his/her actions and policies criticized, often by people whose goodwill is necessary to do other business. No one is going to agree with the President all the time; certainly no one who is also an independent political actor with his/her own constituency.
How could it be otherwise? A union like the AFM, with its wildly diverse membership, is bound to have a lot of internal disagreements by its very nature. Either the President will never take a position on any of them, for fear of being criticized, or he/she will take positions that some people won't like - who will then be critical of .those positions. But, on other issues, those same people could become supporters, and previous supporters could become critics.
The ability to live with this and to be able to handle criticism and opposition on one issue from people whose support will be needed on other issues is a core skill for the president of any democratic entity. But Tom doesn't have it. Tom appears to take criticism - even predictable and “in bounds” criticism of his official actions - very, very personally. Not only does he get angry; he allows his anger to drive him to intemperate responses. Worse, he seems unable to distinguish critics from enemies - which, of course, tends to convert critics into enemies. Worst of all, he then appears to let his animosity towards his “enemies” drive his actions, rather than any recognizable principles of trade unionism.
There are all too many examples of Tom's reacting badly to criticism during his tenure. Last year's exchange between Tom and me in the pages of Union Democracy Review, while hardly the most egregious, is a good example.
The article I wrote was indeed critical of some of Tom's actions. But it was basically an attempt to describe the basis for the conflict between Tom's administration and the recording musicians. There was nothing critical about Tom personally, and I tried to avoid pejorative descriptions of any individual.
Tom's response was very telling. He consistently used pejorative language, negatively characterized those he viewed as his opponents in rather personal terms, and generally seemed rather to argue about personalities and motivations rather than the actual events and issues. For an AFM president to accuse recording musicians - his own members - of “bullying” and of not believing in “democracy and … trade union principles,” not only in public but in a non-AFM publication, is highly unpresidential behavior. And to use as an argument against those musicians the fact that they were receiving “six and in some cases seven-figure payouts annually” from the distribution funds was just jaw-dropping: most union presidents would consider well-compensated members an achievement, not an accusation.
This has been the pattern of his dealings with recording musicians almost from the beginning. He turned his anger over their early criticism into an apparent belief that they are undeserving AFM members, then into a crusade against the their player conference, and then into a crusade against player conferences in general. That of course only exacerbated the conflict. He turned critics - critics who, in fact, had supported his candidacy for president - into enemies.
Tom seems to forget that members have the right to criticize officers; arguably they even have an obligation to do so if they believe the officers are off-track. Members even have the right to criticize the officers unreasonably. Officers, on the other hand, have the constant obligation to respond to such criticism in a way that does not divide the union. Officers have an obligation to realize that members are often angry at officers, and for the same reason that they're often angry at employers - because they feel powerless. Officers have an obligation to remember that the best way to deal with members' anger is to listen even harder and more sincerely to what they have to say.
Officers, in short, have a constant obligation to be the grown-ups in the room. Members have a perfect right to behave unreasonably; officers get paid to lead. Tom seems to believe the opposite.
Not the least damage done to the AFM by Tom has been his attack on the unspoken compromise at the heart of the modern AFM system of governance - the idea that the players conferences represent members every bit as much as do Locals, albeit in different ways. Player conferences don't have the formal role at Conventions that Locals have - but, since the Blue Ribbon process and the Roehl Report of the late 1980s, they've been influential nonetheless. They've had great influence in national negotiations, in the running of the Presidential departments, and in the relationship of the AFM to Locals. As this was a compromise arrangement, intended to achieve the benefits of formal trade divisions without the political costs, it was completely satisfactory to no one. But it held the AFM together until Tom began to attack it and to describe Locals as the only "true representatives" of musicians.
Back in 2005, Ken Shirk wrote a long comment to a post of mine on the contest between Tom and Ed Ward at the 2005 Convention. Ken's comment is worth quoting from:
One of the untold tales in the saga of Tom Lee vs. the recording musicians unfolded at the end of 2003. The LA RMA newsletter had been distributed that contained scathing criticisms of Tom Lee and AFM behavior. Tom Lee called the IEB together seeking its advice on how to respond to the newsletter. In general, we counseled him to respond moderately. Tom Lee replied that since he had been personally attacked, he had to respond on the same level. We counseled him that a union leader had to rise above that kind of behavior with its members. After an hour's discussion, the entire IEB had come to the conclusion that Tom should not respond at all, because it would touch off an internal battle that would be bad for the union, and which would likely show no prospect of ending. However, Tom ignored all our advice, and fired off a very unfortunate counter-attack, which was deep down dirty and personal. It pretty much set the tone for the last 18 months.
At the following meeting of the IEB, two LA RMA members had filed a protest with the IEB, asserting that Tom Lee had exceeded his authority, misspending union funds in responding to the RMA newsletter in the manner that he had. They demanded that the IEB investigate whether Tom's letter had violated federal labor law.
General Counsel had done advance work on the issues and advised the IEB that Tom Lee's letter violated no statutes, and fell within his authority. While the IEB had not supported sending the letter, it also recognized the truth of General Counsel's advice. Quite surprisingly, however, General Counsel had prepared a draft response that went beyond the pale, containing, in addition to the legal reponses, very disparaging and condescending jabs at the two LA members. The Board interposed itself, directing that the response be toned down to the bare essentials.
…Tom was committed to snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. He would not accept peace if it was not on his terms. With a way out of the mess with the recording musicians at hand, Tom Lee was not going to go there.
…We all tried as hard as we could to give Tom Lee good advice, to back him up as best we could, to salvage the situation and everyone's reputation and honor. In the final analysis, however, he chose to follow his personal urges and satisfy his ego instead of follow the wiser and saner advice of his fellow officers.
Remember, Ken was writing about events in 2003. Since Tom's re-election in 2007, things have gotten much worse.
- The AFM has chased a blog critical of Tom's administration out of existence, using the legal system (and no doubt lots of members' dollars) to try to force several major companies to disclose the identity of the blog's owner. But when did anonymous criticism of the President become a crime within the AFM?
- Several lawsuits were filed against the AFM - lawsuits which could have been avoided or settled had Tom been prepared to deal with those suing the, rather than simply provoke them. The AFM then used those lawsuits to launch a fishing expedition and go through the RMA's internal communications, even though the RMA was not a party to the lawsuit
- Tom and the IEB not only promulgated agreements with which the RMA - which, remember, is charged under long-standing AFM policy with representing the views of recording musicians to the IEB - strongly disagreed, but consistently refused to submit those agreements to ratification, violating not only a critically important Bylaw, but one of the AFM's strongest traditions of union democracy.
- Tom double-crossed the symphonic player conferences on the appointment of a new SSD Director. Not only did he wait months, during the most severe crisis in the orchestra industry in decades, to get around to filing the position. When he did so, he went behind the backs of ICSOM, ROPA and OCSM to appoint someone who wasn't even considered during the search because he didn't meet the the criteria that Tom himself set up at the beginning of the process. Instead, he let the chairman of ICSOM convince the person that ICSOM, ROPA and OCSM wanted - and who he had offered the job to - to accept the position, only to find out that Tom had then offered the job to someone else.
- Tom appointed a de facto Director of EMSD without the knowledge, much less the approval, of the EMSD Steering Committee. The person he appointed had no experience with AFM electronic media issues or contracts; in fact she didn't appear to have much adminstrative or negotiating experience at all. Then, of course, she was let go when Local 47 discovered that she was hacking into their computers.
- Tom appointed signatory employers to the union-side negotiating committee for the Jingle negotiators. One of them, who was not a musician but who co-owned a signatory company, had to join Local 802 expressly for the purpose of being appointed by Tom as a “rank-and-file” member of the negotiating committee.
I know that Tom took office in 2001 with the best of intentions. If anyone had told him, back in 2001, that he would ignite a crippling war between recording musicians and their union, or that he would be appointing employers to union negotiating committees, or that he would be spending lots of members' dollars on reading the RMA's email, or that he would be apointing department directors over the vociferious objections of the Player Conferences, he would have thought that those were insane predictions. It's certainly not what I thought would happen.
But it has. As a union president, Tom has lost his way. He's not going to find it again if he wins this election; past victories have made that clear. And the damage that will done in the next three years will dwarf what's been done so far.
It's time for him to go.