802 Shifts Focus of Campaign to NYC Swing

Upholding Area Standards

Volume C, No. 3March, 2000

Joe Eisman

On a chilly Friday evening recently, a dozen 802 organizers, members and volunteers buttonholed New York hipsters on their way into Le Bar Bat, a trendy midtown meeting place where young professionals network. “Have you heard about New York City Swing?” one union activist asked a black-clad patron. She stopped to listen to an explanation of Local 802’s latest campaign.

The union is driving forward with its campaign to uphold area standards in the single engagement club date field. New York City Swing, a busy office that does not have a collective bargaining agreement with Local 802 and fields as many as six bands, is the next target. The agency saves a significant amount of money by not paying pension and health benefits to its musicians, despite charging clients upwards of $1,000 per musician.

The campaign aims to level the playing field among all the major club date employers in this area. As nonunion work that doesn’t pay benefits to musicians proliferates, the standards for all single-engagement players decline. Unfair competition from agencies that refuse to pay benefits creates downward pressure on both wages and benefits, and lessens 802’s bargaining leverage with the agencies that are doing the right thing.

The new campaign is modeled after 802’s successful campaign to convince Starlight Orchestras to maintain area standards by paying benefits. Both agencies have about six bands that play for weddings, bar and bas mitzvahs, conferences and other private affairs, and both utilize top-notch musicians, often paying them significant overscale. (With Starlight, Local 802 was able to win a “maintenance of benefits” clause in the contract, protecting everyone’s overscale. See December Allegro for more details.)

Pressure from clients and venues was key to the Starlight win, and the union is now reaching out to organizations and event planners that use New York City Swing, and to the places where the agency’s bands play, to ask them to help persuade the club date office to do the right thing. The general manager of one major Midtown club that hosts private and corporate events has already said that, in light of the campaign, New York City Swing is no longer welcome in his establishment. And Planned Parenthood has written to New York City Swing, asking the agency to remove Planned Parenthood from its web site’s list of clients.

The union is handing out flyers outside New York City Swing gigs to educate clients, patrons and the general public about the company’s refusal to provide benefits for musicians. One action took place on Feb. 5, when tux-clad union reps handed flyers to guests arriving at a party where New York City Swing was providing the music, hosted by the American Heart Association at the Chelsea Piers complex. Many guests agreed that the failure to provide benefits is contrary to the American Heart Association’s ideals.

802 staff have also begun to pass out leaflets in the diamond district to educate potential brides and grooms – who will soon be hiring wedding bands – about the campaign.

Arun Luthra, a jazz musician who teaches at the recently organized jazz program at New School University, told Allegro that he decided to attend the Le Bar Bat demonstration even though he does not play for New York City Swing. “I am a good example of a working musician whose life has been bettered because my employer now provides pension and health contributions,” Luthra said. “I would like to see all my fellow musicians enjoy these benefits.”

External pressure is an important part of efforts to get New York City Swing to abide by area standards but musicians’ support is really driving the campaign, as was the case with Starlight. “The campaign is working because we are getting support from New York City Swing musicians, and from the entire music community in New York,” said 802 Director of New Organizing Tim Dubnau. “And that support is growing, which tells us we are on the right path.”

Vice-President Mary Landolfi told Allegro that the union will allocate significant time and resources for the campaign. “Local 802 strongly believes that musicians deserve pension and health benefits,” she said. “This campaign will only escalate, until New York City Swing lives up to the area standards we have all fought so hard to achieve.”

Local 802 members who want to support the campaign should check the Local 802 web site for the latest way to participate.