The Secretly Group Union has affirmed and ratified a contract with its employers, marking a major milestone for one of the first independent record-label staffs to organize.
The SGU announced the news on Twitter Tuesday night, Oct. 11, writing, “We are ecstatic to announce that contract negotiations have concluded and our membership has voted to ratify the contract! This was a long and very difficult fight, but we could not be prouder to be the first independent label group union. We hope this is a beacon to other labels and other people struggling to work in music. Our vote was a contentious decision, and we already know what we’re going back for when it’s time to go back to the table.”
Secretly is one of the most prominent indie music companies, comprising five labels — Secretly Canadian, Dead Oceans, JagJaguwar, Ghostly International, and the archival label Numero Group — plus distribution and publishing arms. The roster across those labels includes heavyweights such as Bon Iver, Phoebe Bridgers, Yoko Ono, Sharon Van Etten, Mitski, the War on Drugs, and Khruangbin.
On Twitter, Dead Oceans shared a message about the contract saying, “This agreement marks a new chapter in Secretly’s ongoing commitment to our staff, to our workplace and to the core values we bring to artist and label partners every day. A note of heartfelt thanks is in order: to everyone involved in reaching today’s agreement, to the depth of trust and respect that colleagues placed in one another and in this process and to the effort and work put in to reach this milestone.”
Staffers at Secretly Group first announced their plan to unionize in March 2021 in the hopes of securing a contract that would allow them to tackle issues like low wages, inadequate health care benefits, and a desire for more transparency and representation in the workforce. To help their organization efforts, Secretly employees worked with the Office and Professional Employees International Union, which represents administrative staff at several major-label groups, as well as workers in other fields.
At the time, one member of the organizing committee, who spoke with Rolling Stone anonymously, explained, “We’ve all had friends say, ‘Oh, you’re so lucky. You get to work with music, you get a free ticket to a show or free drinks,’ but drinks and shows and music don’t pay our rent, and don’t provide us with the support that we need. We obviously have a real passion for what we do. We love our roster, and we’re really proud of all the music we put out, and we’re proud of being able to work on it. But that is not a substitute for the kinds of benefits and compensation that we need to keep being able to do this.”
For its part, Secretly Group agreed to voluntarily recognize the union not long after the initial announcement, though it still took 14 months for negotiations to conclude and for the contract to be ratified. That kind of drawn-out negotiation wasn’t always easy, acknowledges Secretly Group operations coordinator and bargaining committee member Sanjeev Rau. On top of staff/bargaining committee member turnover, the SGU was tasked with finding a contract that worked for both office and warehouse employees, and workers who were scattered across numerous states.
“But,” Rau says, “we were blessed to have a unit full of intelligent, courageous and moral people whose compassion for their fellows superseded their concern for themselves alone. Many took turns leading the way through this battle and their insight and support was invaluable and will continue to be so as we move ahead.”
Jeremy Daly, another bargaining committee member who works in licensing at Ghostly, notes, “Most unions don’t get a first contract. The fact that we did speaks well of our union members and the company across the table. After many gruelingly long days and nights I can say it was an absolute pleasure to be able to be involved in something that was bigger and more meaningful than myself — an opportunity that one rarely receives in life.”
For the SGU, crossing the finish line and approving the contract was arguably the most difficult part, with Rau admitting this is where things got particularly “contentious.” The contract does secure major wins like 100 percent healthcare coverage, guaranteed annual wage increases, separate allotted sick days from paid time-off, pre-tax commuter benefits, and a labor management committee to work with management on shaping workplace policy and increase transparency.
But wages were a major sticking point, especially for Secretly’s warehouse workers, who were reportedly unhappy with the final offer Secretly Group put forth. Because of the aforementioned wins, the Union still found the supermajority it needed to ratify the contract; but those on the bargaining committee are adamant that this first contract must be a first step, and not a final victory.
“There’s simply no way around the fact that Secretly Group Union and the company at large do not see eye to eye on wages, especially when it comes to how valuable and essential our warehouse staff are,” Rau says. “They are the backbone of the company, brilliantly performing fast-moving and high-intensity manual labor for not just the Secretly labels but nearly 100 other indie labels around the world, and direct artist clients on top of that. The union feels they deserve better. In the end, through discussions with the whole unit, a supermajority of the bargaining unit decided to vote to ratify the contract, whether due to the benefits they saw in the contract, or the promise of what an investment in a union holds for us and our future. We made a commitment to continue the fight for our warehouse staff and now we must hold true to that promise.”
Ryan Ille-Potter, a label services coordinator at Secretly Distribution, adds, “In my eyes, this contract feels like a solid first step. Does it address every issue raised by our colleagues? Unfortunately, no. It’s our first contract and there were always going to be areas where it fell short of expectation but it gives us an excellent foundation from which we can continue to improve the conditions of our labor.”
This story was updated on 10/13/22 at 10:10 a.m. ET with more information and quotes from members of the Secretly Group Union.