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Secretly Group Recognizes New Union. Could More Music Unions Follow?

Courtesy of Secretly Group Union

Secretly Group, the indie label group representing Phoebe Bridgers, Bon Iver, War On Drugs and others, took steps to “work towards recognizing” a newly formed employees' union minutes before a Thursday-evening deadline it received earlier this week. 

"We share the Union’s goal of voluntary recognition, and we are working to that end. It is always difficult to hear that there are people within the company who are unhappy, that there are issues that may be unaddressed or out of view," the company, which includes subsidiary labels Jagjaguwar, Secretly Canadian and Dead Oceans, said in a statement. "But we hope that this union effort speaks to their belief that our common ground -- love for the work we do, and for the music and culture we share with the world -- is truly and deeply shared."

Before the label announced it would recognize the Secretly Group Union, a rep said the reason for its formation was to “make Secretly Group a more equitable, inclusive and healthy workplace.”

The rep criticized the label for giving its 150 employees "proximity to cultural capital," then taking advantage of their "enthusiasm for the culture," leading to "exploitation and unfair treatment within their careers." Requesting anonymity as a condition for the e-mail interview, the rep accused the label of "poor wages, inadequate benefits, lack of work/life boundaries, gatekeeping that obstructs professional development, and an absence of initiatives that address systemic race and gender inequality." After the Secretly Group recognized the union, the rep did not respond to inquiries by time of publishing.

Although unions are common for musicians, many of whom belong to longstanding groups like the American Federation of Musicians and SAG-AFTRA, aside from the 2-year-old New York-focused Music Workers Alliance, they're rare among labels and other recording-industry employees. That could change, especially during difficult economic times when employees at Amazon, Google parent Alphabet and others have formed unions to protect their interests -- and more music and entertainment companies could follow.

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"If we see a win on Amazon, or whether it's close, you're going to see workers get inspired across industries," says Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labor education research for Cornell University. "You can have a ripple effect."

Secretly Group’s recognition on surprisingly short notice was unusual in the context of labor movements -- at the least, labor experts say, companies usually demand an election among employees to verify the union, which can be a divisive delay tactic.

"Typically, management says, 'Hell, no,'" says Robert Bruno, a University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign labor and employment relations professor. “Usually, when [recognition] happens, it’s because the union has brought a lot of pressure to bear and the employer figures it’s better to go that way than the election route.”

Secretly Group, however, said Thursday that recognition was “an extension of our mission and core values.”

The label’s statement continued: “Just as we work to empower our artist and label partners, we want to empower our employees: collaboratively, openly, in full recognition of our competing priorities and our shared goals.”

Bruno suggests other employees at bigger record labels or other music companies could follow suit, although union efforts traditionally trickle down from large corporations to smaller ones.

“Could it have an effect?” he asks. “It depends on how expansive and how successful this would be.” Before the recognition Thursday, the Secretly Group Union rep said: “We absolutely hope this inspires others to unionize. For many of us, it didn't seem like an option, so hopefully we showed the wider independent industry that it's possible. You don't need to start one when things hit rock bottom."