Down to the Wire

Volume 112, No. 1January, 2012

Karen Fisher

How NYGASP musicians had the courage to face off management…and what they won

Sometimes the union has to go the extra mile to settle a contract. In the case of the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players, we traveled over 200 miles, to a performance at Wolf Trap in Virginia, to get the job done.

Local 802 and NYGASP had been negotiating over a renewal agreement for more than nine months. Despite our agreeing to some minor concessions, we saw very little movement from management.

The main sticking point, which seems to come up during every NYGASP contract negotiation, was the clause that obligates the company to pay full opera/ballet scale whenever it performs in major venues. NYGASP has performed occasional runs at City Center – one of our major venues – for the past decade, but claimed that labor costs were preventing them from performing there again.

The NYGASP Orchestra Committee and our counsel, Local 802 lawyer Harvey Mars, explained repeatedly to management that we had an obligation not just to the musicians in the NYGASP orchestra, but to the entire freelance community to maintain scale wages in major venues.

Management repeated their refrain as well: “We are not going to sign another contract with a major venue provision that contains wage rates we do not negotiate.”

There were other issues, of course. Musicians needed to raise wages for runout and overnight performances, which are the types of engagements most often done by NYGASP, and which have been disproportionately low for years. But we could not seem to move forward without resolving the issue of major venues.

After so many months of being at loggerheads, we seemed to be heading towards more drastic action. With Executive Board approval, the union called an orchestra meeting and took a strike vote, which passed overwhelmingly.

The last performances of the season were at Wolf Trap, just outside of Washington, D.C. in Vienna, Virginia. NYGASP has performed there every year since around 1995. Wolf Trap has a huge amphitheater and seats over 7,000 including the grounds. If we didn’t act at that point, we would not have had the ability to effectively negotiate until the next concert in New York on New Year’s Eve. By then it would be too late.

Discussions between the committee and the union continued throughout the days leading up to the performance. There were serious concerns about holding a strike so far out of town. By morning, however, musicians decided that the Wolf Trap performance was the point of maximum advantage.

The timing was dramatic, and musicians showed great courage. Thirty minutes before curtain, we presented NYGASP’s music director with a memorandum of agreement. That agreement said that NYGASP would stop quibbling over the major venue clause and take it off the table. The orchestra committee stated that either he sign it now or the orchestra does not play.

We were prepared for the worst, and the atmosphere bristled with tension. NYGASP management refused to sign. While we were ready to walk, the committee ultimately decided it was best to give them one last chance. As the clock ticked quickly towards the 8 p.m. curtain, the orchestra committee decided to allow the orchestra to play if management agreed to talk in the morning. At 7:55, it was agreed, and the performance went on.

After the performance, while the remainder of the orchestra and cast rested, the committee met at a diner to strategize well into the night. Negotiations resumed at 9 a.m. This time, NYGASP’s management handed us a piece of paper across the table. It said that musicians would agree not to strike the next concert. Management also told us to sign this or they would not negotiate further.

After coming so far, we were not going to give up our advantage. Besides, we had played the performance the previous evening in good faith. We said we would sign their document after he signed ours. Both sides retreated to caucus, lawyers on the phones. After four hours of intense discussion, we came to agreement on nearly every outstanding issue of the contract.

The Saturday evening performance went off without a hitch.

Once everyone returned to the city and the agreement had been reduced to writing, there were still hurdles to clear, namely the identification of major venues to which the major venue clause applied. After further negotiations, ultimately the parties came to an agreement on all outstanding aspects of the contract. Musicians ratified the agreement.

The musicians on the NYGASP Orchestra Committee – Steve Shulman, Deb Spohnheimer, Nancy Ranger and Bob Lawrence – stood strong and united in the face of an extremely stressful situation. Each of the musicians has a long history of playing with this group. Although the negotiating committee had an obligation to stand firm, no one wanted to see this longstanding relationship irrevocably damaged.

In addition to the committee and our lawyer Harvey Mars, we must also thank Jay Blumenthal, who at that time was Local 802’s financial vice president and supervisor of the Concert Department.

While there may be some wounds on both sides, those wounds will heal. In fact, as a result of our negotiations we believe that a healthy respect between the labor and management will be maintained.

The end result is a three year contract with some increases in wages in the third year, the preservation of the major venue clause and an intense experience of the power of unity, determination and preparation.