A Story That Needs to Be Told

Organizing Matters

Volume 111, No. 9September, 2011

Michael Donovan

Sometimes, it’s necessary to take a deep breath, look back, and say “What happened?” In June, we learned that the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas was canceling its upcoming season and suspending operations. This came after musicians had spent months in negotiations with the ensemble, moving toward the goal of a permanent union agreement. The story of this campaign deserves to be told.

Founded in 2006 by its dynamic conductor Alondra de la Parra, the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas had risen in stature through the hard work and dedication of Ms. De la Parra and the equally hard work and dedication of the musicians who have been with her since her days at the Manhattan School of Music.

While the orchestra was growing in prominence, the musicians were also growing professionally. Many, if not all, had been involved in the music scene to the point where they had become members of Local 802 or had had contact with the union through their work in other orchestras, recording, Broadway or in the club date industry.

Local 802 is the obvious route for musicians who expect to make a living wage, earn health benefits and win pensions. We have a proven track record, and we represent every professional musician in New York City and beyond. Despite this, the route to unionization in this campaign was not as inevitable as it could have been.

What happened with the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas when its musicians, its management and Local 802 all came together is worth examining. In this convergence lies the story of how musicians can, by working together, continue to set the standards in the New York music industry, preserve the legacy of live music and therefore strengthen themselves.

The Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas first appeared in major halls in Local 802’s jurisdiction when it performed in 2009 at both Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall and at City Center, where the orchestra has its offices.

The Tully engagement should have set off our alarm. Our major halls are our firewalls and we cannot let orchestras chip away at our standards there.

Although we missed the Tully engagement, we were on top of the situation at City Center.

In fact, one of our most important freelance orchestras, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, had lost this engagement because the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas had undercut the freelance orchestra scales.

Local 802 contacted City Center about the situation. City Center understood that this event would damage its relationship with us. So City Center paid the musicians from the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas out of its own pocket, over and above what management was paying, in order to bring the musicians’ paychecks up to our standards.

In other words, Local 802 was responsible for getting the musicians paid more.

However, we made a mistake. We didn’t tell the musicians that the union was the reason they got the boost in salaries for this service. A valuable opportunity had been lost at this juncture.

Now fast forward a year. The Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas is again planning a performance at Alice Tully Hall. And again, they are paying their musicians below standards. Musicians from POA contacted us. They were concerned about the pay, their careers, and their relationship to Local 802.

So in June 2010, the union sent representatives to speak with POA management, but we were rebuffed.

Then, a week prior to the Tully Hall concert, President Tino Gagliardi called a meeting with musicians.

We quickly learned that the musicians were fiercely loyal to their conductor and dedicated to the success of the orchestra.

The problem was this: POA was about to give a concert at a major hall while paying musicians less than our standards. The concert was a week away. With no time to form an orchestra committee, we had to act quickly.

Finally, orchestra management got the message. They knew that there was a real threat of a job action at Tully Hall. What followed was a game of cat and mouse. Management met with us, then stalled. The union ramped up plans to picket the Tully Hall concert.

Ultimately, four days prior to the concert, we were able to win a single engagement contract for the Tully Hall concert, and – more importantly – we also won union recognition, which allowed musicians the chance to bargain for a long-term agreement.

As we prepared the musicians for negotiations, the depth of loyalty to Ms. de la Parra was evident. Musicians were concerned that the union might financially endanger the orchestra which they had helped nurture and make successful.

Our relationship with musicians was skittish at that point. It was clear that we had failed to develop a strong relationship with them, and we could have done better. Despite that, the musicians, along with their desire for success as an orchestra, had professional concerns that were soon to manifest themselves.

After setting up some initial bargaining dates with POA management, musicians told us they needed more time to prepare. Around this time, they set up a Facebook page to discuss their own issues, and began taking nominations for their negotiating committee. This was a crucial step and it showed us that musicians had started to take ownership of the process.

It also showed us that musicians were ready to speak to management about their concerns not from a position of weakness, but on an equal footing – an equal footing provided by their union. No longer were the musicians merely employees of the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas. They were recognizing their own professional interests and were bringing these interests to their employer. This is what forming a union is all about.

Next month: the negotiation process.

This story originally appeared in the September 2011 issue of Allegro, the magazine of the New York City musicians’ union (AFM Local 802). For reprint requests, send an e-mail to editor Mikael Elsila at