Why I put my dream job on the line


Originally published in The Morning Call.

For over 20 years, I’ve played timpani, also called kettledrums, in the Allentown Symphony Orchestra. While performing with an exceptional group of musicians, I’ve expanded my knowledge of music in fellowship with the Lehigh Valley community.

But after being threatened with firing, I filed a lawsuit to protect my rights. Doing so brought me no joy, especially since the stakes are so high.

Landing a job in a professional orchestra is harder than you might think. Dozens, even hundreds of musicians who have been perfecting their skills for a lifetime, all vie for one position. Auditions are typically blind—held behind screens—so applicants are judged on nothing more than their sound. Under such conditions, I won the principal timpanist position in 2001.

It was and remains one of my proudest accomplishments.

I last played in the orchestra in March 2020, just before COVID-19 shut everything down. Over a year later, in May 2021, an official from my union, the American Federation of Musicians, Local 45, contacted me demanding dues payment even though I hadn’t played a note in more than a year or earned a dollar doing so.

The demand for dues was frustrating, but the accompanying arm twisting and attitude of entitlement was much worse. At the time, we as a nation were still adjusting to the pandemic and its vast uncertainty.

The union threatened legal action if I didn’t pay up. Later, it threatened to have me fired for the same reason.

For 20 years, I always paid my dues on time. I’d given the union so much money over the years, but the minute I questioned the value they provided, they tried to intimidate me.

Dealing with rudeness is always aggravating, but it got me thinking about larger issues with the union. My union dues are coerced. Since I started at the symphony, I’ve been forced to pay the union as a condition of my employment, whether I support what it does or not.

Consider the incentives: Why would union officials care about me as an individual if they know my financial support is guaranteed? What’s more, they know they have immense leverage over orchestra musicians.

Union officials are gatekeepers not to a replaceable job, but to an exclusive opportunity—a dream job. Why should they care about what I think? Refusing to pay means I’ll lose the job that I worked so hard to earn. But they see dozens of potential dues-paying replacements waiting in the wings.

Union officials get their money either way. Or so they think. The law says differently.

Since the symphony is defined as a public employer under Pennsylvania’s public-sector labor law, the union is required to respect my First Amendment rights of free speech and association.

When I’m forced to financially support a union that takes political stances—according to Opensecrets.org, since 2016 the union has given 98% of its patronage to one political party—it’s not just my dues that are coerced; it’s my political speech as well.

Because I’m legally a public employee, I can’t be forced to pay the union today and should never have been obligated to do so. This is the basis of my lawsuit.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2018 that public-sector employees can’t be forced to pay a union as a condition of employment. I’m relying on that precedent, and representation from the Fairness Center, a nonprofit law firm, to defend my rights against those who would misuse their power and deny them.

Standing on principle is never easy, especially when doing so could jeopardize something you love. For too long I “got along to get along” and kept quiet about things that I knew were wrong, while rationalizing my silence as being tactical, rather than cowardly.

With our freedoms under attack from so many directions, I realized I could no longer remain silent.

This time I’m speaking up.

Glen Wilkofsky is the principal timpanist of the Allentown Symphony Orchestra and a small business owner.

The author’s viewpoints are their own and do not necessarily represent those of the Fairness Center.