Employees at The Early Ear Working to Organizing a Union

Volume C, No. 12December, 2000

A group of music teachers and their piano accompanists recently began an organizing campaign with the help of Local 802’s New Organizing Department. They work at The Early Ear, Inc., a for-profit music school that brings children ranging from four months to five years old to listen to and learn the basics of music. The teachers and pianists have formed an organizing committee and are speaking with their co-workers about the benefits of collective bargaining.

The campaign’s catalyst was the employer’s insistence that everyone sign an oppressive contract with a vague “non-compete clause.” The workers also would like to discuss Early Ear’s low wages, especially for pianists, lack of raises for pianists, and the lack of personal days, sick days and break time for all workers. Many employees have also complained that the employer maintains unequal requirements for teachers and pianists to become eligible for health insurance.

Many employees contend that the owner, Dr. Ilya Lehman, sometimes unilaterally changes benefits and wages for some employees. For instance, some pianists have been forced to accept substantial pay cuts in recent years, although the program has continued to expand. The Early Ear now has three schools in Manhattan and one school in Brooklyn’s Park Slope.

Sandy Opatow, a teacher at the school and member of the organizing committee, hopes that a union at the Early Ear will allow teachers and pianists a fair voice on the job, which she believes will strengthen the overall program. “We love our jobs and respect what Dr. Lehman has accomplished,” she told Allegro. “We want to join together as a union to make the Early Ear a better place to work, and therefore a better place to teach the kids.”

Pianist Maryna Rogozhyna, a committee member, hopes that a union can improve pianists’ wages. “The piano players work very hard,” she told Allegro, “and our wages have sometimes gone down! I hope that, with a union, we can start to earn what we are worth.”

Committee members have been meeting weekly at the union to discuss ways to get their coworkers to support the campaign. Once a majority sign union cards, 802 will ask the employer to voluntarily sign a recognition statement.

This campaign is the next step in the union’s effort to win union protection for music teachers. In 1997 Local 802 won a first contract at the New School’s Jazz and Contemporary Music Program, and in 1999 a union agreement was negotiated with the Guitar Studies Center at the New School.

Senior Organizer Mikael Elsila is working on this campaign, along with Tim Dubnau.