Apollo Musicians Win Union Representation And An Impressive First Contract

Volume CI, No. 1January, 2001

Tim Dubnau

Musicians who perform weekly at Amateur Night at the Apollo now have a union – and their first collective bargaining agreement, which provides impressive gains, is already in place.

At 11 a.m. on December 6th, Toni Fay, secretary of the Apollo’s board of directors, voluntarily signed a recognition statement, officially giving a voice on the job to the four-member house band. A two-year contract signed at the same time includes large wage increases (the band has not had a raise in eight years) and, for the first time, provides benefits. The union and the theatre also signed a “right to organize” agreement, which creates an orderly and quick way for new groups of musicians employed by the Apollo Theatre Foundation to gain collective bargaining rights in the future.

The agreement raises wages by about 50 percent over two years, provides for Plan A of the Local 802 Health Benefits Plan for all four musicians, and provides a 6 percent pension contribution, increasing to 7 percent in the second year. The bandleader’s weekly salary increases from $450 to $550 on Jan. 1 and side musicians’ wages increase to $325 from $250. In year two, wages will rise to $650 and $400, respectively. The musicians voted unanimously to ratify the contract.

Musicians who may work for the Apollo Theatre in the future, in new ventures, will be able to form a union when just over 50 percent of the new unit sign union authorization cards. “The card check agreement is very important for us,” said 802 Vice-President Tina Hafemeister, who oversees the New Organizing Department. “If the Apollo begins presenting new shows, it will be much easier for musicians to choose to be represented by Local 802.” She pointed out that this approach “is much more productive than spending precious resources fighting at the Labor Board. We couldn’t be happier with this new, more progressive approach the Apollo is taking.”

The agreement concludes a sometimes bitter one-year campaign to organize the theatre’s house band. It was launched last March 1, when the union mailed a letter to Grace Blake, then Executive Director of the Apollo, informing her that the musicians wanted Local 802 to represent them. The Apollo initially ignored the letter, prompting a protest rally in front of the theatre. Dozens of 802 members came out to support their fellow musicians, and were joined by about 200 friends in the labor movement, community groups in the neighborhood, and people of faith.

The theatre hired the law office of Gay and Hardway, which is well known in some circles as having expertise in “union avoidance.” And Apollo management denied the musicians a vote on union representation, claiming that they were not employees but “independent contractors.”

Local 802 responded with a two-pronged strategy. The union worked to generate public pressure on the Apollo, asking patrons to call theatre management to demand that the musicians be given the right to choose whether they wanted Local 802 to represent them. Hundreds of people made phone calls or sent letters, faxes and emails to representatives of the Apollo. Dozens of labor leaders, politicians, and community leaders stepped up to support the band’s efforts. (At around this time, the union learned that Blake was planning to step down as executive director.)

In addition to the public pressure, Ray Chew and the Crew testified at the Labor Board that they are employees, not independent contractors, and the union’s legal counsel filed a powerful brief in support of that position. (See President’s Report for excerpts.)

On Oct. 31, the Director of NLRB Region 2 handed down a ruling supporting the musicians’ position (see December 2000 issue). Celeste J. Mattina’s finding that the musicians are employees, not independent contractors, cleared the way for the Dec. 6 union election.

Soon after the Labor Board decision was announced, Local 802 learned that David Rodriguez was to be named Executive Director of the Apollo. Rodriguez reached out quickly to the musicians and the union, making it clear that he favors a more conciliatory relationship. As a gesture of good will, he began informal discussions to understand the musicians’ concerns. These discussions quickly culminated in the collective bargaining agreement signed on Dec. 6.

“I embrace the Apollo’s new approach,” said Ray Chew, music director of the Apollo band. “This is very different from the traditional ‘management versus labor’ posture that a lot of institutions take. We are glad to see them positioning themselves for the new millennium, and forward.”

“It is gratifying that the new leadership of the Apollo has taken a more progressive and reasonable posture towards their musicians,” said 802 President Bill Moriarity. “We wish the Apollo success, and we will do everything we can to help this great institution reach its potential.”

Senior Organizer Mikael Elsila and New Organizing Director Tim Dubnau worked on this campaign. Jennifer Weekley, John Byington, and Robert Archer of the law firm of Meyer, Suozzi, English and Klein represented the union at the labor board.