802 Members Honor Picket Lines Of Striking MoMA Workers

In The Key Of Solidarity

Volume C, No. 7/8July, 2000

Mikael Elsila

(Click here for a sample of e-mails sent by Local 802 members to Juilliard President Joseph Polisi)

Modern Art! Ancient Wages!”

That’s the battle cry at the Museum of Modern Art, where 250 workers have been on strike since April 28 over a fight for a new contract. And most musicians scheduled to play at MoMA have done the right thing and honored the workers’ picket line.

Bookstore staff, secretaries, librarians, conservators, curators and archivists are all protesting substandard wages, with starting salaries as low as $17,000 for full-time work. They’re also fighting to maintain health care and job security.

The museum will shut down its 53rd Street location next year to begin construction of a new building. The prospect of layoffs is prompting workers to seek a fair severance plan and the right to return to jobs when the museum re-opens.

UAW Local 2110, which represents the museum workers, has charged MoMA with ten unfair labor practice charges at the National Labor Relations Board, including failure to bargain in good faith, threatening of union supporters, and illegal removal of employees from the bargaining unit.

The museum hires musicians to perform every Friday, when it opens its doors for free. Musicians also play at the museum’s restaurant, Sette MoMA, on Saturdays. But management was in for a surprise when many musicians, including both 802 members and non-members, refused to cross the workers’ picket line.

“The musicians’ union has been extremely supportive and has worked hard to persuade musicians scheduled to play at the museum to honor our picket line,” said UAW Local 2110 President Maida Rosenstein. “We are grateful and appreciative to all those musicians who have supported the picket line and not crossed – and it’s a great example of union solidarity, and solidarity between art and music.”


Sean Smith, bassist for the Jan Werner Trio, was the first musician who decided not to cross, on May 5. Smith, an 802 member, said he honored the museum workers’ picket line “on principle.”

On May 12 the Sheryl Crow concert at the museum was cancelled. Management’s official line was that MoMA itself cancelled the concert. However, Local 802 organizers had been in touch with her manager in the days preceding her appearance and asked Crow to honor the picket line.

On May 19 the Raymond Scott Orchestrette refused to play at MoMA. Instead, they performed at the Knitting Factory.

“I come from an old-guard union family,” said bassist George Rush. “We felt iffy about crossing a picket line. None of us wanted to do it after a request from Local 802 had been made. On the one hand, it’s a close call when you’re a freelance musician. But, looking at the big picture, the money became an insignificant thing. We were pleased and impressed with the way the union handled the situation.”

“I didn’t want to cross a picket line, and was sympathetic to the strikers,” said Brian Dewan, who plays electric zither, among other instruments, in the Orchestrette.

“We were glad to help out; we felt it was the right thing to do. We wanted to support the workers striking at MoMA. The union made it easier for us to do that by arranging for the strike pay, and [Noise Action Coalition member] Marc Ribot arranged for us to play at the Knitting Factory,” said accordionist Will Holshouser.

The Raymond Scott Orchestrette is made up of Rush, Dewan, Holshouser, pianist Wayne Barker, drummer Clem Waldmann, saxophonist Michael Hashim and violinist Rob Thomas. Violinist Todd Reynolds is a sub. The group performs the music of Raymond Scott (1908-1994) who rose to prominence in the 1930s as the leader of a six-piece “Quintette” that performed his unique three-minute novelties. Carl Stalling later adapted Scott’s music to underscore Warner Brothers cartoons like Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. Scott’s music is also referenced on the Ren and Stimpy Show, the Simpsons, and Animaniacs.

“It is tremendously encouraging when musicians respond favorably to a call for solidarity during a long and very difficult strike,” said John Gray, writer and striking MoMA cataloger. “After weeks of facing off with an intransigent management, the feeling of thanks is quite palpable on the line whenever we hear that other artists, of whatever discipline, are willing to support our efforts.”

June 2 saw another victory when Coco Merenson, a Latin band, refused to cross. Local 802 organizers passed out flyers that stated, “Real Musicians Don’t Cross Picket Lines,” and many would-be MoMA patrons decided not to cross either when they found out the musicians had stayed away that night.

Roger Barr, the band’s representative, said, “Basically, Latinos in New York have a pretty raw deal workwise. There is a history of being overworked and underpaid. It seemed to me appropriate to support this action because the musicians are in the same situation.” The band includes guitarist Juan de Jesús (“Coco”), saxophonist Juan Comprés, bassist Victor Sánchez, vocalist Luis Pollonia, conga player Adriano Fortunato, bongos player Miguel Durán, guitarist José Espinal, maracas and guira player Domingo Antonio Peña and trumpeter Victor M. Perdomo.


The biggest success occurred on June 30, when MoMA was forced to cancel the debut of its annual “Summergarden” series, a program that features modern classical music in its outdoor garden. Juilliard conductor Joel Sachs traditionally uses students and recent graduates for the series. On June 27 Local 802 organizers stood outside Juilliard and spoke with students, letting them know that playing at MoMA would mean crossing a picket line. Organizers also gave students a letter urging them not to cross, signed by Dan Barrett, Jay Elfenbein, Ralph Farris, Sean Katsuyama, Pauline Kim, Conway Kuo, Myron Lutzke and Dave Phillips, all union members and most Juilliard graduates. Finally, an emergency e-mail bulletin was sent to all Local 802 members, asking them to send e-mail messages to Juilliard. Within 24 hours Sachs contacted the union and let them know that the performance had been called off.


With the victories have come a few defeats. After many weeks of support, museum workers were shocked when a string of musicians decided to cross. Bandleaders that have crossed the picket line include Roni Ben-Hur, William Cepeda, Gilberto “Pulpo” Colon, Connie Grossman and Betsy Hill. And most of these leaders’ side musicians have crossed too, some under pressure from their leaders. Notable exceptions are bassist Sean Smith, pianist Wendy Ryan and percussionist Pablo “Chino” Nuñez, all of whom honored the picket line even after their leaders crossed.

“We’re deeply disappointed when any musician makes the decision to cross a picket line, especially when we’re offering strike benefits to offset the financial setback,” said President Bill Moriarity. “A picket line is the best weapon workers have, and the right thing to do is to show solidarity. We applaud our members and non-members alike who have chosen to support the MoMA workers and their picket line.”

“I think jazz musicians need to start to look at the big picture of who can help them to improve their own situation,” said Jimmy Owens, Jazz Advisory Committee liaison to the Executive Board. “Crossing a picket line often can mean a weakened solidarity with people who we may need to come to our assistance in the future. I know there were many unions who came to our assistance during the New School campaign. These supporters were not necessarily jazz artists or educators, but they knew this was necessary for the jazz education community.”

Support for the MoMA workers has also come from the Noise Action Coalition, a collective of independent, Downtown-scene and avant-garde musicians. “The arts and entertainment industries trade on their glamour by offering workers low wages, and calling it ‘paying your dues,’ ” said Scott Turner, acting secretary of the coalition. “Those on the picket line are showing real bravery. Maybe more than any other industry, culture workers aren’t recognized as workers, which makes labor organizing and solidarity tough.”

Local 802 urges all musicians not to perform at the Museum of Modern Art. Strike funds may be available for those who honor the picket line. For more information, contact Mikael Elsila at (212) 245-4802, ext. 187. Supporters are also urged to send an e-mail to Glenn Lowry, MoMA’s director, and urge the museum to settle a fair contract. Lowry’s address is

For more information, contact the museum workers’ union, UAW Local 2110, at (212) 387-0220.

Following is a sample of e-mails from Local 802 members to Juilliard President Joseph Polisi:
Back to top

I would like to ask you to reconsider your decision to encourage Juilliard students to cross a picket line to work at the Museum of Modern Art’s Summergarden series. You are supposed to be preparing these young people to take their places in the music community (also dance and theatre) and they need to know to respect and honor the causes of fellow workers, not to use labor disputes as opportunities for advancement. Quite honestly, they’d be doing their careers a huge disservice; anyone who’d do them any good would still be outside, refusing to cross a picket line.

-Steve Cohen

I have just learned – via Local 802 – that Juilliard students may soon be asked to cross a union picket line at the Museum of Modern Art.

I personally know one of the people who is picketing; among the important issues are job security and benefits. These are major items which many workers in the arts – visual and performing – are facing.

I urge you to encourage your students not to cross the picket line at MoMA. “Scabbing” is not a good thing to do at any time in a musician’s career. It might be disappointing for them not to be able to have an individual performance, but the field needs to back up principled demands on the part of workers whose long-term quality of life is affected.

-Ben Harms, Percussionist
(Metropolitan Opera, Historical Percussion, etc.)

As head of one of the premier institutions for training the future’s performers, you have the unparalleled ability to prepare your students for the difficult choices they are being asked to make.

A rule of the entertainment, and performing arts, world is that there will always be more people able and willing to work, than there are open positions. It sounds cruel, but this rule has exerted a Darwinian effect on the talent pool . . . only the very best survive, and claim the positions their hard work and talent have won them.

However, the world of the arts is also full of employers who are less interested in the level of performance than the level of profit. In the name of larger profits, they will turn the natural selection process on its head.

Students and recent graduates eager to gain experience and work are easy targets for these unscrupulous employers. The positions they accept are often at the cost of someone else’s job.

It is very important that, in addition to teaching virtuoso performance techniques, you also teach real world ethics, and long-term career planning. One day these students will be the ones losing a job over a few bucks to the next generation of naive young performers . . . unless they start learning now – today – about the cannibalistic effect such actions can have on the process.

Teach them that true artists don’t cross picket lines!

-David L. Bogner

Back to top