American Opera Musical Theatre Company Ordered to Bargain with Local 802

Volume C, No. 4April, 2000

Mikael Elsila

Local 802 won a 17-month battle against the American Opera Musical Theatre Company when the National Labor Relations Board determined that the company withdrew recognition from the union and failed to negotiate in good faith.

Administrative Law Judge Joel P. Biblowitz wrote in a March 1 opinion that the employer violated Section 8(a)(5) of the National Labor Relations Act and, as a remedy, must now bargain in good faith with the union. The judge also ordered the company to post an admission of wrongdoing, and send copies of this admission to all musicians it has employed since Dec. 10, 1998.

The dispute began in November 1998 when Diana Corto, the company’s executive director, hired nine musicians to play a series of performances of La Boheme. When she cancelled one of the dress rehearsals the day of the event and turned another performance into a dress rehearsal, a musician called Local 802. After some down-to-the-wire negotiations, a deal was struck in which Corto recognized 802 as the musicians’ representative, agreed to place the nine musicians on a primary hiring list, and said she would bargain with the union.

However, after just one negotiation session she walked out, saying that “under no circumstances” would she consider “tenure” for any musician, and that she “could not operate” under the union’s proposals. Soon after, 802 charged the company with an Unfair Labor Practice for failing to bargain in good faith.

In February 1999, Corto attempted to present Giovanni Paisiello’s La Molinara at Town Hall for significantly underscale pay, using musicians not on the original primary hiring list. To avoid an action at the event Town Hall negotiated a deal with Local 802 in which the original nine musicians would get $150 each, and the replacement musicians a smaller additional amount. Town Hall promised to urge Corto to negotiate with Local 802. The union stated that it would strike any of her upcoming performances unless an agreement was reached.

There was no settlement and, last April, Corto again attempted to perform at Town Hall with musicians not on the primary hiring list. Some were offered as little as $40 per service for the engagement. (Minimum opera scale for a single performance is $184.29.) Local 802 organizers stood outside Town Hall and spoke with musicians on their way into rehearsal. Many replacement musicians identified themselves as students from Mannes College. When some of them learned they were being used to replace professional, unionized musicians, they asked Corto for more information. By the end of the day, the entire orchestra was off the job.

The union filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board on April 26, 1999, and the final arguments were made last December. Director of New Organizing Tim Dubnau and senior organizers Mikael Elsila and Joe Eisman testified. Harvey Mars, who represented Local 802, said, “I was very pleased with the labor board’s decision. It was a vindication of all our efforts to get the employer to sit down with us and negotiate.”

Anyone called to play with the American Opera Musical Theatre Company is asked to call the New Organizing Department at (212) 245-4802, ext. 143 or ext. 187.