A Message from AGMA’s New National Executive Director

Published February 1, 2022   |  By Musical Artists  |  Post in All Areas
Sam Wheeler shares his four main priorities as the new National Executive Director of AGMA.

A version of this was shared with the AGMA Board of Governors on Thursday, January 27.

Today marks my first day as AGMA’s new National Executive Director. I want to start by giving thanks.

I have been working at AGMA for a little more than two and a half years as Eastern Counsel. I can say without hesitation that it is an honor and a privilege to represent AGMA’s membership every day. It is a blessing to wake up each morning and know that no matter the challenges of a given day, I get to spend my time fighting for workers and for the truly exceptional artists who make up AGMA.

I want to thank AGMA’s members, the Board of Governors, and the Executive Council for all of the work that they do to make this an amazing union.

It was truly one of the profound honors of my life to have even been considered for the role of National Executive Director. When the Board approved my appointment, I was excited, humbled, a little stunned, but mostly ready to get to work.

Many AGMA members know me, but for those who do not, I want to tell you a little bit about myself, and how I got here.

I was born in Western Pennsylvania, in coal and steel country, which means I was raised around unions, which built and solidified the middle class in the region where I grew up. I was raised by two remarkable women, my mother, a thirty-year public-school teacher, and my grandmother, a lifelong nurse and healer. I am married to Rachel, the love and light of my life and we just welcomed our daughter, Kara Paige, to the world in October.

I’m a graduate of the College of William and Mary and Harvard Law School. Before law school, I ran political campaigns for a living. There I acquired a love of good work done well, an affinity for caffeine, and my first experience leading an organization and managing a team.

When I went to law school, I didn’t know what I wanted to do but I fell in love with labor law, and I soon found a calling in advocating for unions and working people. After law school, I spent a year at the National Education Association before moving to New York City and going to work Cohen, Weiss and Simon, LLP. I spent several years at the firm, being trained by the best labor lawyers in the country. It was there, while I was working at Cohen, Weiss and Simon, that I was asked to assist in AGMA’s 2018 negotiations with the Metropolitan Opera. That was when I was first introduced to AGMA and its amazing members.

Soon after, when I learned that AGMA was looking for another negotiator to join its growing professional staff, I jumped at the chance to come work for the Union. And the rest, as they say, is history.

I’m very proud of what I’ve accomplished in my time here. I’ve negotiated dozens of CBAs, side letters, safety protocols, waiver requests, and media agreements. I’ve been asked to lead national initiatives, like the Constitutional Revision, that I believe have strengthened our union. I’ve provided counsel and input to AGMA’s leadership and committees. Most importantly, I’ve worked with and gotten to know AGMA members, helping them resolve issues that crop up during their daily work and build power, together, to improve their working lives.

Before I talk about what I see as the most important priorities of the Union, I first want to talk about the role of Executive Director.

As I often say, I work for AGMA, which means I work for AGMA Artists. This is the Artists’ union, not mine. That is doubly true for the National Executive Director (NED). In my mind, the NED exists to ensure that both the Board and the membership can accomplish their goals, harness their collective power and use it to improve the terms and conditions of employment at AGMA’s 60-plus signatory companies, and to transform our industries for the better.

The NED doesn’t set policy or priorities—they carry out the priorities and policies of the Union, as expressed by the elected leadership on the AGMA Board of Governors. I can say that one main reason I was thrilled to be considered for this job is that we have an engaged, active, and dedicated group of decisionmakers and advocates on AGMA’s Board, in its caucuses, and in shop leadership across the country.

In AGMA’s current circumstances, there is a lot that is going well. So, part of my job will be to make sure that things continue to go well and improve in areas too.

AGMA has a talented and amazing professional staff that I would put up against any other staff in the labor movement. Our staff is stacked with top union-side lawyers, tenacious negotiators, knowledgeable and proactive business reps and admins, and talented and creative communications professionals. Some are even former AGMA members and previous members of the Board. A primary goal of mine will be to retain this staff and make sure that they have the support that they need to do their very best work for our members.

I believe, to my core, in having a diverse team with differing viewpoints and experiences that weigh in on all major decisions. To the extent possible, I prefer to make decisions by consensus, only after everyone has had the opportunity to provide input and perspective.

We have dedicated, active, and brilliant member leadership. It is imperative that everyone in a position of leadership at the Union has the information they need to make informed decisions, have meaningful conversations with coworkers, and advance the priorities of the Union in workplaces. I will work to make sure that the elected leaders of AGMA have the information, training, and tools that you need to do this. 

Now, I would like to briefly lay out my four main priorities as National Executive Director.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion:

Before I get started, I have to thank AGMA’s members who advocated tirelessly for AGMA to confront systemic inequality and oppression in our industries. I have been continuously inspired by your advocacy and courage on these issues.

In particular, I want to thank Flo Cora, who was one of our leaders in Met negotiations and who spoke passionately and elegantly about the urgent need for change at the Met. As many of you know, Flo tragically passed away. It was a real honor to get to know him and to work with him. He will be missed.

I should state the obvious: I am a white cis-gendered man, so I will always have unlearning and learning to do. I want you to know that I am an ally and I take seriously the lifelong, ongoing work necessary to be a non-optical ally.

Advancing these initiatives, using AGMA’s power and resources to combat inequality and oppression in our industries and our society is, in my mind, the single most urgent issue facing the Union. Racism and discrimination are a safety issue; they make our workplaces dangerous, they tear at the fabric of solidarity that binds us together, and they subject our BIPOC and AAPI members to unsafe and unfair working conditions.

I’m very proud of the work that has already been done, both internally and at the bargaining table, and I’m proud of the small role I’ve played. But the work that we have started in bargaining and internally, all thanks to AGMA’s membership, is the just floor that we have to build upon.

I can promise AGMA members that within my first year I will submit a comprehensive DEI Plan for consideration and approval by the AGMA Board of Governors, encompassing AGMA’s hiring practices, training of staff, leadership, and members, and all other aspects of the organization to ensure that AGMA is living its values as a union. I commit to building and retaining a staff that is reflective of our membership because diversity is important for its own sake but also a requirement to do this job well. In order to adequately represent our members, we must be diverse and reflect the diversity of AGMA’s membership and I commit to making that a reality.

Strong Contract Negotiation:

We are still coming out of a difficult period with the pandemic. AGMA has nearly 30 contracts up for negotiation this year. It’s imperative that we reverse cuts from COVID-19, advance DEI initiatives, and have a consistent, comprehensive, Board-led process to tackle new issues like streaming and digital media.

I will make sure that our negotiators have the support they need to accomplish this and ensure that we are following best practices, advancing our national bargaining priorities, and advocating for AGMA’s priorities across the country.

External Organizing:

AGMA needs to grow. Simply put, AGMA is stronger with more members and more companies. In terms of strengthening our organization financially and in terms of building our collective power, we have an imperative to organize, organize, organize, as many companies and artists as we can.

We also have a moral imperative as well. The pandemic reinforced the dramatic difference between artists with AGMA’s protections and artists without. And too often it’s the most vulnerable artists—Young Artists, freelance artists, BIPOC and AAPI artists, artists at the smallest companies—that aren’t working under an AGMA contract.

We must have a goal of organizing every single artist in our jurisdiction across the country, to bring the benefits and protection and collective power of this union to everyone we can. It’s a goal we likely can’t accomplish completely, but it’s a horizon line; a destination to aim for knowing that, even if we don’t make it all the way, we’ll do good work on our journey.

To accomplish this, I want to work with the members of AGMA’s Board and AGMA’s National Director of Organizing and Outreach to identify high-value organizing units within the opera, dance, and concert fields, and then work with staff, elected leadership, and members on the ground to bring them into our union family.

Internal Organizing:

I believe in being a fighting union. It will be my goal to expand our existing delegate training and bring it to the membership at large so that every single one of our members feels responsible for and empowered to stand up for their contract on the job.

Finally, it is imperative that we continue and redouble our efforts to reach out to our soloists, bring more and more of them solidly into the Union, and make an affirmative case to our members as to how AGMA membership strengthens and benefits them, and demonstrate the power they have when they act together. AGMA soloists make up a significant portion of our membership and are some of our most prominent members. But more importantly, they are exceptional and dedicated artists and people.

To that end, I commit to ensuring soloist representation on all bargaining committees; continuing outreach at the shop level to soloists as they come to shops for gigs; exploring every possible avenue until we find a viable path to health insurance for guest artists; establishing connections with artist managers who represent our soloists so that we can work together to solve big problems; and working with soloists to identify organizing opportunities for both Young Artists and soloists working in non-union companies.

Before I conclude, I just want to say again what a privilege it is to work for the members of AGMA and for this union. AGMA members are the very best in the world at what they do. Every time I see a performance, I am in complete awe of the talent, dedication, and craft. I’m reminded that in fighting for our members, we aren’t just fighting for workers, but for the Arts in America, for a key part of the civic soul of our country. I am even more in awe of who AGMA members are as people, and applaud the solidarity, energy, and courage you bring to this union.

As I embark on my first day, I can’t promise that things will always go the way we planned as the days, weeks, months, and years go on. The pandemic is a painful example that sometimes the world has its own plans.

But I promise you that I will work tirelessly, every day for the members of AGMA. I promise that I will listen, truly listen, when issues are brought to me. I promise to serve with humility, to ask questions when I don’t know an answer, and to ask for help when I need it. I promise to be responsive to feedback and to do what I can to get better at this job each day. I promise to support and uplift our incredible staff and to make sure they feel valued and appreciated in their work. I promise that I will carry joy and good humor with me in my work. I promise to do my very best for the members of this union.

Thank you.

In Solidarity,

Sam Wheeler