Anatomy of a One-Hit

Organizing Matters

Volume CV, No. 2February, 2005

Joe Eisman

New York City — the live music capital of the world. There are hundreds — perhaps even thousands — of jobs occurring every night.

Many, if not most, of these jobs are nonunion. So here’s a little puzzle: what do we do about this? (And by “we,” I mean the 10,000 members of Local 802, along with our 10 professional reps and organizers.)

We have most of the highly centralized symphonic and theatre work in Manhattan under union contracts. However, musicians perform outside of Midtown, in the other four boroughs, and on Long Island as well.

Much of this other work is less regular, and less concentrated, than the “high-density” theatre and symphonic fields.

Union density is a term that refers to the percentage of total work — in a particular area or field — that is under union contract. Usually, the higher the union density, the stronger the union contracts. Within Local 802’s jurisdiction, the symphonic and theatre fields are highly unionized, with little nonunion competition to drive down wages and benefits, and, as a result, these musicians enjoy relatively strong union contracts. The lower-density fields, like music education, jazz, rock, hip-hop, Latin and even club dates are more difficult to organize.

However, musicians everywhere deserve the dignity of a union contract, and this leads us back to the question: what do we do about all this nonunion work so that we can live up to our mantra of representing all professional musicians?

Each one of the thousands of nonunion jobs presents unique organizing challenges, and requires unique strategies and campaigns.

Over the next few months, this column will discuss organizing by analyzing several organizing campaigns as case studies in various fields, focusing on the strengths and weaknesses of the campaign, but also the challenges we all face in organizing. The first area we will look at is a common reality for freelance musicians: the “one hit.” In this case, the one-hit was in the freelance symphonic field.

The Organizing Department, and the hotline (an anonymous mechanism of reporting your nonunion gigs by leaving a message at 212-245-4802, ext. 260), receive relatively few calls reporting nonunion gigs. However, among the few that we do receive, perhaps the largest number relate to what we refer to as “one-hits.” These are jobs that are not ongoing, and musicians are often hired by a local contractor for just one engagement.

Usually there will be a mix of union and nonunion musicians. Sometimes the working conditions are so terrible that even a nonunion musician will give us a call. (One recent campaign with Camerata New York started because musicians were threatened with a reduction in wages if they forgot a pencil.)

Sometimes the wages are far below scale, and sometimes musicians are concerned about getting pension and health contributions. Every now and then, musicians are even concerned simply because they think the job should be a union job. (We love those calls!)

For a recent production of “Carmen” at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, produced by the South African company Dimpho Di Kopane along with the Museum for African Art, we were called because the job was nonunion and because it did not pay pension or health benefits. Typical call, and typical situation:

  • We received an anonymous call.
  • We had no idea who was on the job.
  • We didn’t even know where the rehearsals were, or how many 802 members would be there.


So given this lack of information, what do we do? We start hitting the phones. Our new concert rep, Jacob Heyman-Cantor, made hundreds of calls from lists of generally younger musicians who have done these types of engagements in the past. Finally we found a couple of musicians who had been hired for “Carmen.”

Next we needed more information. However, in this instance, our contacts did not know the other musicians, weren’t sure of how many had been hired, weren’t even sure where all the rehearsals would take place, and didn’t feel comfortable approaching too many musicians.

We did learn that many of the musicians were not 802 members. We also knew that the pay for the engagement was oddly close to opera/ballet scale — indicating that the producers used our scales to lure musicians to the job with a relatively lucrative cash gig, but were planning on cheating people out of pension and health contributions, social security and other benefits.

So we scoped out St. John’s to figure out where the rehearsals would be. Finally, after several attempts, we got word of a date, and we showed up before, during and after the rehearsal to flag musicians down on the street to try to talk to them about the benefits (and necessity) of organizing. We did this over the course of a full week, and eventually talked to over a dozen musicians — even cramming in meeting time during a 20-minute speed lunch break between rehearsals.

As is often the case, most musicians wanted the benefits but were reluctant to stand up and demand them. Finally we decided to contact the employer, communicate the musicians’ demands, and let the employer know that Local 802 was not going to allow freelance artists to be cheated out of the pension and health benefits that all musicians deserve. The employer balked (“You don’t understand how hard it is to put on a production…not many tickets sold…this production is uniquely important…” etc., etc.), but agreed to meet again.


For the pivotal negotiating session, since the “Carmen” musicians were reluctant to participate, we contacted numerous busy symphonic freelance musicians to see if someone would attend the negotiating session. This would lend legitimacy to the discussion. It would also help explain why a level playing field among employers is important and why each job for a freelancer must pay benefits.

Despite the freezing cold and pouring rain, Lucy Goeres, a former committee member of the Long Island Philharmonic, volunteered to attend. She both observed the process, and helped us reach a deal.

(We need to include 802 members more during our organizing drives, especially since musicians directly involved will not always participate — if you’d like to get involved, call the Organizing Department.)

We also used 802’s muscle to threaten the company.

We advised Dimpho Di Kopane that we would use traditional trade union tactics to expose this injustice, as well as our relations with St. John’s to pressure them to sign a contract.

We also found out that H. Carl McCall, a longtime political ally of 802, was a member of the church, and we threatened to get him involved.

Both St. John’s and the Museum for African Art decided to put their own pressure on Dimpho.

In the end, Dimpho signed the contract.


However, the contract was not perfect.

We gave up on health contributions because we didn’t have a strike threat and because the vast majority of musicians would not qualify for a plan. So we decided to concentrate on pension.

We won 10 percent pension for everyone, as well as a wage increase that would cover all work dues.

At this point, we still did not have a full list of the musicians, so we simply went to one performance to announce that there was now a union contract covering this job. Many musicians were happy about receiving pension, but others felt like they had been left in the dark, and did not even understand what had happened.

One seasoned union member who played this job, Debra Schmidt, offered this constructive criticism: “Local 802 needs to do a better job at representing everyone, and communicating that the union, and its many benefits, are available for all musicians.”

She’s right, and with more communication, perhaps every musician not only would have been more educated about the union and the organizing process, but would have supported pushing for an even higher pension contribution, and for the health contributions as well.

However, it all comes down to the definition of Local 802. Does “Local 802” mean our 10 professional reps and organizers? Yes, we’re a part of Local 802, and Debra’s point is taken in terms of the need for us to constantly improve our communications with musicians. But Local 802 can, and must, also be defined as our 10,000 members. Each member has a responsibility to keep our union strong, which means reaching out to young and nonunion musicians. Educate them. Teach them to organize. Let them know which way the wind blows.