In the same year that President Taft took office, the first U.S. airplane was sold commercially, and the North Pole was first reached, the Reno Musicians’ Protective Union Local No. 368 was chartered. While there has been a musicians’ union in town since the late 1800s, Local No. 368 has been securing better pay, better working conditions and benefits for the city’s professional musicians since 1909.
“I joined in 1974, I believe, the first time—I’ve been in and out of it a couple times,” said union president John Shipley. “I was offered a job as a substitute in the house band at Harrah’s Reno. I knew about the union through my high school teacher. … He was the band director at Hug High School, where I went to high school, and he encouraged me to join the union.”
Shipley was born and raised in Reno and got his start studying classical music before joining jazz band as a teenager. As a young adult, Shipley was mentored by big band leaders at the casinos and clubs around town before eventually going to play stages worldwide as a “hired gun.” Among his many credits, Shipley played with surf-guitar great Dick Dale and served as the musical director for Motown recording band the Funk Brothers.
“My big job right now is I’m at the Eldorado piano bar, the Roxy, four times a week. I call it singing Sinatra for martinis,” Shipley said. “My second wife and I did an opening act for Mr. Sinatra. And it was quite an honor to meet him and perform on the same stage as him.”
When Shipley returned to Reno in the late ’90s, he resumed his membership with the Reno Musicians’ Union. But wherever he played in the years previous, he kept his membership with the overarching international union with which the Reno local is affiliated, the American Federation of Musicians. Then and now, Shipley said, the primary utility of belonging to a musicians’ union is the power of the collective bargaining agreement, or CBA.
“When you band together, you can stand up to a CEO, one person, one corporation,” Shipley said. “Every union, their first goal is better working conditions, not more money—making sure that musicians aren’t playing in the sun, you know, playing outdoors in all this inclement weather, things that should be in a contract.”
The two major CBAs that Local No. 368 currently has in place are with the Reno Philharmonic and the Reno Chamber Orchestra—longstanding contracts that have brought positive change over the years, Shipley said.
“When I first became a union officer here … the lighting getting into the pit at the Pioneer theater was really inefficient, and several musicians had tripped and hurt themselves,” Shipley said. “(Fixing) simple little things like that are what goes on in contract negotiations.”
While CBAs are some of the most crucial services the union offers, they’re far from the only ones. Shipley said he’s attempting to negotiate payments into the AFM’s pension fund with this year’s CBAs, which could help provide retirement stability for professional musicians. Other benefits include everything from instrument insurance to discounted cell-phone plans, and even help to negotiate a mortgage.
Julie Machado, a longtime union member and bassist for the Reno Philharmonic, said the union was especially helpful during the pandemic.
“We called on the union to help us find ways to get money to musicians, because if you couldn’t go outside, you couldn’t actually make any money playing,” Machado said. “The union helped the musicians connect with other resources in our community and on a larger scale so that they could pay their bills, pay their rent, buy groceries, have child care—that kind of thing.”
Machado has been a member of Local No. 368 since 1980. When she joined the Reno Chamber Orchestra, she and the rest of the players were encouraged by founder and conductor emeritus Vahe Khochayan to join the union. She currently serves on the players’ committee for the Reno Philharmonic—a board of elected members that represent each section of the orchestra and negotiates in conjunction with the union.
“The union is the negotiator for our collective bargaining agreement, but the players’ committee is the one that puts it together,” Machado said. “The only people who can be on the players’ committee for any orchestra in the United States are people who are contracted and are members of the union.”
During the pandemic, Machado said, the Philharmonic board secured funding to pay for recording equipment for the Pioneer Center—a measure meant to continue performances during lockdown. The union secured broadcasting rights per the international media agreement, a factor Machado said was crucial to compensating everyone which is emblematic of the generally positive relationship between Philharmonic executives and the union.
“That eventually led to on-demand broadcasting in your home of the Reno Phil classics concerts, the Spirit of the Season concerts, and the PBS series that we’re on,” she said. “It couldn’t have happened if we didn’t have the union there.”
Machado values the union for ensuring things like the musicians’ salary scale and proper safety accommodations at contracted performances. Earlier in her career, Machado also saw the union as a way to meet like-minded musicians and look for jobs—an option that has fallen by the wayside in recent years.
In fact, for as much as the union has done for Reno’s professional musicians, it now faces an existential problem: shrinking membership. From a peak membership of more than 600 in the 1950s and ’60s, Local No. 368 currently has around 80 dues-paying members—most of them older.
“If there aren’t enough musicians, there isn’t a lot of money to work with,” Machado said.
Plenty of factors have sapped the lifeblood from the local musicians’ union—and the organized labor movement in general—over the years. To Shipley, the greatest threat to any Nevada union is the state’s “right to work” laws, which essentially neuter any private company’s obligation to negotiate with the union.
But there is another, more subversive threat to union membership: A general lack of awareness, and sometimes apathy, by younger musicians.
“When you talk to a young musician, he says, ‘Well, I’m having trouble paying my rent. (Union membership is something) I have to pay for,’” Shipley said. “… But I’ve had young musicians come to me and say, ‘This club didn’t pay me,’ and I’ve gone over to the club and dropped my business card … and I was able to get money for the young musicians.”
Machado—who’s played in classical orchestras, rockabilly bands, bluegrass outfits and jazz trios—said she wished more young people knew about the tangible benefits even a college garage band could receive from membership, from contract-writing workshops to best touring practices.
“Let’s say you’re playing, and you look like you’ve got this regular gig going once a month or every week, and you see that you’re having problems,” she said. “You can join the union then and have the union represent you. You don’t have to join in advance. You can have it always there behind your back as a steadying force.”
Ultimately, Shipley said, the union is only as strong as its members. He points to instances like the recent train derailment in Ohio as consequences of organized labor being devalued nationally. If the protections for the town’s musicians put in place over the last 100 years are going to last, it’s going to take direct action.
“You get out what you put in,” Shipley said. “It takes effort to belong to a union.”
Learn more about the Reno Musicians’ Protective Union Local No. 368 at renomusicans.org.