Apollo Musicians Take Battle to NLRB

Volume C, No. 7/8July, 2000

Mikael Elsila

Musicians at the Apollo Theatre have taken their fight for justice to the National Labor Relations Board. On June 20, Local 802 and the Apollo Theatre Foundation squared off at 26 Federal Plaza over the quartet’s right to form a union. Meanwhile the union is also pressuring the Apollo’s corporate patron, Time Warner, to use its influence on the side of fairness for the musicians.

Ray Chew, Bobby Douglas, Ralph Rolle and Artie Reynolds, the Apollo’s house band, have worked Wednesdays at the Apollo for years, hosting Amateur Night. They have never received a raise or benefits of any kind. Since the musicians asked for union representation in March, the theatre has claimed that Chew, an eight-year veteran at the Apollo and the group’s leader, is not really its employee, and that he and his band are not even entitled to vote on whether they want a union.

“We are seeking justice in the forum of a formal hearing within the structures of the Labor Board,” Chew told Allegro. “We feel that this avenue will achieve a positive result, and so we’re looking forward to seeing this process all the way through.”

Douglas, who plays keyboards and sings in the band, put it more bluntly. “It’s the 21st century; it’s time for the Apollo to realize that musicians have families.”

Apollo management is represented by Darrell Gay, whose firm is described in the Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory as having “strong expertise” in “union avoidance.” Local 802 attorneys Bob Archer, John Byington and Jennifer Weekley found out what that meant when Gay proceeded to debate minute points in the union’s petition, including whether Local 802 is really a labor union, and the exact wording of the Apollo Theatre’s description of itself.

The theatre also tried to subpoena many pages of private records from the four musicians and a business associate. But Hearing Officer Olga Torres quashed their subpoena, claiming the records were irrelevant to the matter at hand. And in a victory for the union, she allowed Local 802 to subpoena the Apollo’s financial records.

However, labor law is slow – and it could be years before the Labor Board reaches a decision, especially if the Apollo decides to drag and stall. So 802 is also launching a “corporate campaign” against Time Warner which, according to the New York Times, is a major donor to the theatre and assembled most of its Board of Directors last year. The campaign is about educating the public and putting pressure on Time Warner to use its influence to settle the matter.

Some of the pressure has involved phone calls to Time Warner CEO Gerald Levin and Senior Advisor Toni Fay, who also sits on the Apollo’s board. The union has set up a table in its lobby and has encouraged members and passersby to make phone calls on behalf of the musicians. Organizers have also visited the Apollo during Wednesday’s Amateur Night and urged ticketholders to let Time Warner know that they expect justice for Ray Chew and the Crew.

“I think Time Warner should do the right thing, by any means necessary,” said trumpeter Joey Morant, an 802 member who made a call from the lobby.

“Time Warner should be ashamed of themselves, after all this time! Come on, Time Warner! Please!” said Maureen Shannon, an actor and member of Equity, SAG and AFTRA.

The media giant is also in trouble with the federal government, according to the National Law Journal. The Department of Labor began a lawsuit against Time Warner in 1998 for not paying health or pension benefits to some of its workers, allegedly misclassifying them as temporary employees and independent contractors. This echoes the dispute at the Apollo, whose board (largely assembled by Time Warner) claims that the musicians are independent contractors, not employees, and therefore not entitled to a union.

In other potential legal troubles for the Apollo, their attorney told the NLRB hearing officer on June 20 that the theatre does not pay unemployment insurance for its musicians, which is an apparent violation of New York State law for employers of musicians.

And on April 7 the New York office of the Attorney General sent the Apollo a letter letting the theatre know that it was in violation of the law by not submitting completed financial reports that are required of nonprofit organizations for 1998 or 1999.

In their latest appeal to the public, Ray Chew and the Crew performed at the Central Labor Council’s June 15 rally, which featured a “parade of the rats.” Giant balloons shaped like rats, the New York labor movement’s trademark weapon, sported the names of anti-union employers. While the band played, a giant rat named “Apollo Theatre,” and “Time Warner” bobbed gently in the breeze, alongside several other huge rodents.

“No more scraps from the big house: it’s time for that ideology to die,” said Artie Reynolds, the group’s bassist.

For more information on the Apollo campaign, call (212) 245-4802, ext. 143, 186 or 187. Volunteers are always welcome to help with the campaign. Supporters are encouraged to call Time Warner’s Toni Fay at (212) 484-6401. If you are a Time Warner cable subscriber, mention that – and ask the company to use its influence to make sure musicians at the Apollo have the right to vote on forming a union.