As Elections Approach, Let’s Take Stock
Volume CIX, No. 9September, 2009
This fall, we will be entering a new election cycle at Local 802.
I stepped forward in 2006 because I believed that this organization was on a wrong course.
That is certainly not an opinion that is universally shared, but enough members agreed with me that I have had the responsibility of the operation of the union for the past three years.
I will not, however, be seeking the office of president in the coming election.
I always saw myself as a transitional figure and hoped to stabilize Local 802 so that a longer-term leader could take over a strengthened organization and lead it into the future.
I think we have had important successes.
Unifying Local 802 remains an important goal not easily accomplished, but I believe we have made some progress.
Other goals equally important to our future should also be recognized so that they can be prioritized in the new administration.
Let’s talk about what has been accomplished.
Health fund revitalized
First and foremost, we no longer have a health benefits fund on the brink of bankruptcy.
Thanks to the skills of our attorney Danny Engelstein, this was accomplished so smoothly that the draconian cuts made in late 2006 are almost forgotten. But it should not be underestimated what the result would have been if the local had not taken action.
Of course, this was not done without sacrifice.
In the 2007 Broadway negotiations two wage diversions were necessary to rebuild the fund.
Still, even with the one-year extension reached in connection with the recent media agreement, the economic package represents an increase in cost to the employer of 13 percent over four years, coupled with a one-year extension of minimums and maintenance of pension.
Other negotiations are still necessary to bring in higher contributions for all fields, but without the decisions that were made in the 2007 Broadway contract talks, this might be a moot point because the fund might have collapsed due to sheer neglect.
Radio City Music Hall
Although it may never be possible to reclaim all that was lost in the RCMH negotiations of 2005, we have been able to keep a significant number of pool members in their jobs.
In 2007, we persuaded management to alter the wording of the contract in our favor so that the entire pool was not eliminated in one fell swoop.
Last year, we traded a wage freeze for a pass on non-renewals.
This year, for whatever reason, management unilaterally decided not to exercise its right to eliminate people.
This may be a temporary phenomenon, or perhaps the value of Radio City’s long-term employees is once again becoming appreciated.
I am certain, however, that every year that we can keep people on this job is valuable.
I have been disappointed with the enmity that I feel from some of the representatives of the RCMH orchestra toward my administration, but I know that I have done the best that I can in a very bad situation to protect the members of that bargaining unit.
New computer system
An update to our 20-something-year-old computer system is nearly complete. This may seem to be a distant issue to the lives of members, but, having wasted years and uncounted dollars trying to create a system in-house, we were at the point of disaster, with an outdated system about to collapse and its replacement not even one full step toward completion.
Having a functional system will not only make it possible for our staff to serve members better, it will allow efficiencies in the operation of the union and keep us in the black farther into the future.
Thanks to the project done by Maxine Roach and Ethan Fein as part of their studies at Cornell University, we have a fledgling political action committee.
Those members who know my history here at Local 802 know that this has been a project that I thought for a long time was essential for our union.
I have had members assert that I should spend my time wining and dining politicians so that we have more and better allies.
To me this belief is naïve.
Politicians do not want a free dinner, or a round of golf – they want to be re-elected.
We either have to make larger contributions to campaigns or we have to be more visible allies at campaign time.
This committee, if it can be expanded, is a step toward the latter and, as I have stated before, having strong allies in the political arena means that we are better able to fight for the things that are important to us – arts funding, arts education and national health care.
Earlier this year, when the pension on Broadway was threatened by the return of the theatre admissions tax, these volunteers were an important aspect of winning the fight against that proposal.
Other initiatives that we have accomplished that support our legislative agenda include 802 Notes, which allows us to communicate immediately by e-mail when an issue arises and CapWiz, which allows our members to participate in legislative matters with just a click of the mouse. We have Paul Molloy and Joel LeFevre to thank for those improvements.
This administration has been fiscally prudent.
Over the last three years, we have increased the size of the strike fund and ended both 2007 and 2008 in the black.
This year (2009) will be much more challenging, but thus far we are at least breaking even and the surpluses we laid aside in the last two years should see us through until our industry recovers from this terrible economy.
Most of you are probably not aware, but I was the lone board member who voted against submitting raises in work dues to the membership in 2003, so you should be confident that I am very reluctant to increase the economic burden of running the union on the membership except as a last resort.
It is true that sometimes there is no alternative, but I believe that higher dues should be the last alternative, not the first.
In my mind the important factor is to be responsible about the way we use our resources at all times so that we build surpluses when the economy is good and work is somewhat plentiful.
By taking that approach, running a deficit during a bad economic cycle is not ruinous.
Local 802 continues to be an effective and respected part of the AFM, with respect to the negotiation and administration of national recording agreements.
Our voices have been heard and listened to in national negotiations for sound recordings and films, and we are seen by many as the “go-to people” with regards to TV and videotape, both because of our experience and the large number of shows recorded in New York.
On behalf of the AFM we took the lead in negotiating the first-ever contract in the field of basic cable television children’s programming for “WonderPets!”
We are proud of our accomplishments, but recognize, however, that as this part of the entertainment industry is changing, there are also sharp debates and divisions in our ranks as to how to go forward.
Allegro wins top prizes
We continue to produce an award-winning newspaper. This year, Allegro won an unprecedented seven awards in the annual journalism contest of the International Labor Communications Association, including the top award in our circulation class and the coveted Saul Miller award. (See story on page 2). In addition, we gave Allegro a makeover, and editor Mikael Elsila took on the task of the paper’s graphic design, which will save the union thousands of dollars a year.
Facing the future
Probably the most important aspect of leading the union is the responsibility for achieving progress on bread-and-butter issues – the negotiation of contracts under which the membership works.
This is an area in which I believe we had lost our focus in some cases and was part of my motivation for seeking this office.
It remains my greatest concern for the future of the union that a consensus does not uniformly exist in all our bargaining units about the best way to achieve results when contracts expire.
I have always believed that, in an ideal situation, the officer works with committees to achieve the best conditions with the least risk, or to put it another way, the officer is part of a team that studies the possible alternatives so that when the committee makes a decision, all of the possible outcomes, both positive or negative, are understood.
To me this is the backbone of collective bargaining – to set priorities, analyze risks and make rational decisions.
Even with the best information and intentions, however, a negotiation will not be successful without leadership.
Leadership means a willingness to make tough decisions and to defend those decisions.
It means a willingness to level with people and, at times, tell them what they may not want to hear.
We cannot function successfully on the basis of rhetoric, however attractively it may be phrased.
Our world of work is a constantly changing environment buffeted almost daily by changes in technology, musical tastes and cultural shifts.
Leadership means recognizing these realities and being courageous enough to confront them.
I have attempted to work within our committee system over the last three years to make this pragmatic approach the norm, but I have been surprised at the extent to which there has been resistance in some quarters.
At this point, I can only say the following. History is littered with the remnants of unions that came undone because they failed to address changes in the external environment.
Avoiding that fate by developing and strengthening a consensus in favor of decisions based on rational thinking will, I believe, be the most important challenge of my successor.