Early Ear Teachers Look Toward First Contract

Music Teachers Win Recognition

Volume CI, No. 2February, 2001

Mikael Elsila

Twenty-one teachers and pianists at The Early Ear, Inc., won union representation on Dec. 15 when the employer agreed to card check recognition. This marks the third music school that Local 802 has organized, including the New School’s Jazz Department and Guitar Study Center. Negotiations for a first contract were to begin early in the new year.

“I’m excited and proud of us for coming together to fight for our rights and a voice at work,” said Sandy Opatow, a member of the campaign’s organizing committee.

As reported in last month’s Allegro, an overwhelming majority of teachers and pianists at The Early Ear had decided by mid-November that they wanted union representation (click here for article). Local 802’s New Organizing Department pushed for a card check, rather than filing for an election with the National Labor Relations Board. A card check allows a neutral third party to verify that a majority of workers have signed representation cards, indicating that they want a union. It is almost always a quicker route to unionization than an NLRB election, where employers are able to delay and appeal decisions.

Richard Roth, a former employee at the NLRB, acted as the neutral party. He was the only outside person allowed to see who signed cards.

The Early Ear recognized the union as the official bargaining representative of all employed musicians, including teachers, trainees, accompanists and “any other employee performing a musical service.” Excluded are all other employees: office clerical employees, guards and supervisors.

Eva Rainforth and Andy Jordan from the organizing committee attended the card check meeting. New Organizing Director Tim Dubnau, Senior Organizer Mikael Elsila and AFL-CIO Organizing Institute Apprentice Chris Meckstroth represented the union, along with union counsel Harvey Mars. Attorneys Mary Moody and Jane Jacobs of Klein, Zelman, Rothermel and Dichter, L.L.P, represented the employer, Dr. Ilya Lehman.

Lehman’s business, The Early Ear, Inc., is a for-profit music school whose mission is to provide youngsters – some as young as four or five months – with musical experiences so they learn to enjoy and appreciate music from the very beginning of their childhoods.

The school is headquartered at 48 West 68th Street, and also has branches on the Upper West Side, Upper East Side and in Park Slope, Brooklyn. In a disturbing development, Lehman notified the union in early January that he plans to close the Park Slope site. However, with union recognition in place, an employer can not unilaterally make a decision that will affect working conditions. Additionally, an employer cannot shut down a business solely because of unionization. Local 802 is investigating the situation.

Musicians work at The Early Ear both as teachers, who conduct the lessons and play a variety of instruments, and accompanists, who assist the teachers by playing musical examples on the piano. The campaign began last October when a group of teachers and pianists approached Local 802, concerned about their working conditions, including pay, health benefits, break time and an employee contract with a “non-compete clause.” Some accompanists, who have advanced degrees in music, are making as little as $10 per hour.

In the end, 18 out of 21 teachers and pianists signed cards stating that they wanted to unionize. One card was received late and one was not accepted because the employer challenged whether the card signer was on payroll. However, the total number of accepted cards – 16 – far exceeded the requirement, under labor law, that more than half of the employees want a union.

At the end of December the union conducted a secret mail-ballot election to determine the negotiating committee. Sandy Opatow, Teresa Okhranchuk, Eva Rainforth and Maryna Rogozhyna were elected. The union and committee were to meet with the employer on Jan. 8 to begin negotiations.

“I’m glad and surprised that we unionized so quickly and smoothly,” Rainforth said. “I think what’s coming ahead of us will be a bit more of a challenge. We must create a fair contract for everyone involved. This might take more time than the actual unionizing did, but it will be very important in the long run.”