Ballet musicians take their struggle to the street

Join us on Oct. 5 for the next rally

Volume 123, No. 9October, 2023

Mikael Elsila

The musicians of the New York City Ballet orchestra have turned up the pressure on their campaign for a fair contract and are planning a massive rally outside the ballet’s fall fashion gala on Thursday, Oct. 5 at 5pm. This is the second act to the musicians’ first demonstration on opening night, which was attended by hundreds of musicians and union supporters. At that rally, Local 802 President Sara Cutler thanked the crowd for “showing your support for a world class orchestra that is not being treated like a world class orchestra.”


Cutler was accompanied on opening night by AGMA President Ned Hanlon, who represents the ballet dancers. Hanlon told supporters, “AGMA will unwaveringly support Local 802 –  and that commitment is even more significant here at this house where both unions have a substantial presence in this company. This incredible 802 orchestra — along with AGMA dancers and stage managers — are the glue that holds the New York City Ballet together.”

In a statement, AFM President Tino Gagliardi, who is leading the negotiations on behalf of the union, said, “Musicians of the New York City Ballet deserve a contract that allows them to work with dignity and enjoy affordable health care for themselves and their families. They are not being offered the wages and benefits they deserve and are instead being asked to make financial concessions once again.”

The musicians’ contract with the ballet has expired and musicians are currently working for 9 percent below their 2019 compensation. A major sticking point in the ongoing negotiations includes management’s failure to agree to a wage adjustment that would compensate the musicians for going without pay for 15 months during the pandemic, then submitting to a harsh 15 percent pay cut, even though the ballet’s endowment was worth $263 million at the time. (The ballet also received more than $10 million in taxpayer-funded pandemic support.)

Management also is insisting on significant healthcare concessions despite the fact that the ballet is experiencing record-breaking fundraising and ticket sales.

Ballet management even dismissed the worth of the orchestra by saying the musicians were merely “seasonal,” in a recent statement made to Gothamist.

After musicians started wearing black T-shirts with a “fair contract” message in the pit, the ballet canceled “See the Music,” a program where musicians perform directly for the audience as their pit rises to stage level. Local 802 put out an official response ​to this outrageous move: “The orchestra will not be intimidated by the ballet’s decision to cancel the regularly scheduled ‘See the Music’ if the musicians wear their black t-shirts with their ‘fair contract’ message. We view this as retaliation for the musicians’ exercise of their rights under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act. We urge the ballet to reconsider its decision, comply with federal labor law, and allow the audience to see the musicians – without censoring their legally-protected message — as they are a critical part of the ballet experience.” To protest the cancellation, musicians decided to produce their own version, a fanfare that was presented to audiences 15 minutes before showtime. (Watch video of the fanfare here.)

At the opening night rally, Julia DeRosa, principal oboist with the ballet orchestra, said, “Ballet is nothing without live music. George Balanchine said that dancing is music made visible — and that doesn’t happen without this orchestra.”

Musicians have set up a petition to demand a fair contract; to date, over 3,500 supporters have signed. In early September, the orchestra overwhelmingly voted to authorize a strike, which would allow the musicians to strike if contract talks break down.

Bassoonist Ethan Silverman, who chairs the musicians’ negotiating committee, said in a statement: “The reputation of the New York City Ballet exists thanks to the hard work of all of the creative artists, both on stage and off, including the dancers, the musicians and the stagehands. When our audiences come to the ballet, they expect that the creative workers who make the magic happen will be treated fairly. But since ballet management is not offering us a fair contract, despite months of bargaining, we have to take our message to the public.”

The musicians have garnered the support of several of NYC’s top labor unions, many of whom were spotted at the musicians’ rally, including members of AGMA, SAG-AFTRA, the Writers Guild of America, Actors Equity, IATSE, and others.

At the rally, musicians from other Lincoln Center orchestras voiced their support. Stephaine Mortimore, committee chair of the MET Orchestra, said, “The MET Orchestra stands strong with the musicians of the New York City Ballet Orchestra. We call on ballet management and their board of directors to invest in your musicians and preserve your treasure of an orchestra.”

Colin Williams, the committee chair of the New York Philharmonic musicians, added, “These great musicians will show that we’re strong, we’re not going to give in, we will not accede, and we will stand firm in our support for this institution, these musicians, and for all of the great art that we make here.”

Live music at the rally was provided by the Larry Siegel orchestra under a Local 802 union contract. (Watch a clip of the rally here.)

The musicians are providing updates at their public website,

Join us on October 5 at 5pm outside of Lincoln Center. RSVP HERE