Fighting to Save the Arts

Recording Vice President's Report

Volume CIX, No. 3March, 2009

Bill Dennison

On Feb. 4, I and some 25 other Local 802 members and representatives of arts organizations traveled to Albany to urge changes in Gov. Paterson’s proposed state budget.

I spoke before a joint Assembly and Senate committee on the arts along with Actors’ Equity leader Richard Mazur.

At the same time, the following theatre leaders spoke before the Assembly budget committee:

  • Matt Loeb, president of the IATSE local representing Broadway’s stagehands.
  • Carol Wasser, Eastern regional director of Actors’ Equity.
  • Rocco Landesman, representing Jujamcyn Theatres.

All of us spoke about restoring funding for the arts and our strong opposition to the re-imposition of a tax on the city’s theatre industry.

Speaking on behalf of the 9,000 members of Local 802, my remarks to the committee included the following: 

Like you, we are concerned about the economic health of our state, particularly the health of the entertainment, arts and cultural industries that we work in.

We believe that the executive budget as proposed would have a devastating impact on these industries, which have been one of New York’s most important sources of economic growth over the last few decades. 

Proposals to cut the budget of the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) by a total of 20 percent is exactly the wrong recipe in a time of economic trouble.

Arts funding is seed money that generates economic activity, jobs and tax revenues many time greater than the small investment it represents.

NYSCA-supported organizations extend to every corner of the state — 46 percent outside of New York City — and range from museums, theatres and performing arts venues from Buffalo to Cooperstown and Montauk to Chautauqua.

NYSCA issues grants to 2,600 nonprofit cultural organizations that last year generated:

  • Over $8 billion in economic value;
  • Over 50,000 jobs;
  • $3 billion in wages;
  • Over $250 million in tax revenue to Albany.

And all this came from an arts budget that is 1/32 of 1 percent of the state budget.

Let me repeat that: the states’ arts council budget is 1/32 of 1 percent of the state budget.

In our view, cutting that budget is shortsighted, counterproductive and meaningless in terms of closing a budget gap.

The executive budget also contains a proposal to re-impose a tax on New York City’s theatre industry.

Re-imposition of this tax would immediately threaten the well being of Broadway theatre.

It would threaten the pension and health benefits of thousands of theatre employees, many of who could lose access to health benefits.

The burden of the health care cost for many of these members and their families, due to the precarious nature of working in the entertainment industry, would very likely fall on the state. 

Re-imposition of the tax and the resulting increases in industry costs and ticket prices will further discourage attendance.

And it will create a negative and multiplying impact on the travel, hotel and restaurant industries that rely on the theater industry as a magnet for tourists.

As has been shown in the past — 9/11 being the best example — even a brief disruption of the theatre industry has a huge impact on these industries — and ultimately on city and state tax receipts.

In this current economic downturn, the theatre industry is already facing significant challenges.

Funding for new productions has slowed, openings have been pushed back, and projects in their early stages have been cancelled.

This January, more than a dozen Broadway shows closed.

More theatres are going to remain dark for longer periods of time, threatening the economic vitality of midtown Manhattan and this important part of our city’s economy.

The last thing needed is re-imposition of a tax that will only accelerate this trend and end up costing the state far more than whatever might be gained.

Lastly, I would be like to share our concern about tax fairness.

Our state needs a progressive tax system. The wealthy have not paid their fair share.

The members of my union, the vast majority of whom live on very modest incomes, end up paying a far larger portion of their income in sales, real estate and income taxes than the wealthy.

According to the well-respected Fiscal Policy Institute, “All of the income growth in New York State from 2002 to 2009 has gone to the wealthiest 5 percent. When you factor in inflation, the combined income of the bottom 95 percent of New Yorkers actually shrunk.”

Any serious effort to close budget gaps has to start with tax fairness.


The staff and members of Local 802 who spent that Tuesday in Albany delivered this message to more that two dozen members of the Assembly and Senate or their staff.

They deserve our thanks, but it’s only a beginning. Changing how Albany raises and spends money will take much more.

There is real and well-founded anger among working people.

Our representatives in Albany must be convinced to make the wealthiest pay their fair share. With that in mind, on March 6 at City Hall, there will be a massive demonstration for tax fairness, sponsored by unions and community organizations.

We need to be there and we need to go back to Albany until that message is received.


Every once in a while the news is good. The audited financial report for the Local 802 Health Fund was recently released. For the year ending Sept. 30, 2008, the fund saw a net gain of over $1.3 million in assets after meeting all benefit obligations. The fund’s reserves are now up to 6.7 months. And while a typical fund’s goal should be at least at least one year of reserves, the fund has taken a huge step in that direction. 

This is a success story. At the end of 2006, our fund teetered on the edge of insolvency. Projections were that the fund would be out of money by mid-2007.

Starting with the Broadway negotiations in March 2007 — and in every negotiation throughout 2007 and 2008 — officers, staff, and various union committees argued, cajoled and in some cases threatened job actions over the issue of health benefits and the need for increased employer contributions.

As Local 802 members know, the health fund introduced co-payments for the first time on Jan. 1, 2007. Members were paying more for coverage and it was now time for employers to step up and pay their share.

All of this effort has resulted in a huge turnabout for the health fund’s financial stability. 

More members and their families have coverage today than they did three years ago — and for many, their coverage has improved. How many other health plans can say the same thing?

And we can now say with some level of confidence that for the foreseeable future, the fund will be a stable and ongoing source of health benefits for members working under union contracts. 

All union members who worked on negotiating committees in the past two years deserve our special thanks. So does union counselor Danny Engelstein, who played a key role in the 2007 Broadway negotiations.

In addition, the Coalition of Broadway Unions and Guilds — along with the League — have formed a joint committee to examine how the 13 union health funds in New York’s entertainment industry might work together to lower costs and improve benefits for all who work in our industry. 

We are not out of the woods. Health care costs continue to rise at double-digit rates. We have managed a solution for the time being. However, we all know that in the long run a national health care plan remains essential. We hope the new administration in Washington will not stop until that is achieved.