‘You never have to face management alone’

Financial vice president's report

Volume 119, No. 11December, 2019

Karen Fisher

Behind every union activist is a story. Typically, the tale revolves around an indignity or injustice suffered on the job. I learned my lessons about power dynamics and inequality early in my career while playing in an orchestra in Guanajuato, Mexico. Back in the mid 80s, there were few job openings in the U.S. and many American musicians found themselves working abroad. My peers took jobs in Mexico, Venezuela, Portugal, Korea and Spain.

The orchestra was funded by the state and our conductor was the nephew of the governor (or so went the rumor). We were a multinational mix of North Americans, Russians, Poles, Hungarians, and of course, Mexicans. Most of us were very young and largely ignorant of unionism. Our job security and working conditions depended entirely on staying in the good graces of the conductor. I played 2nd and Eb clarinet, a position I loved, as Mexican music is replete with lively Eb clarinet parts. After a year, the principal clarinetist left, and they asked me to move up to that chair, which I obliged. They failed to mention, however, that I would not be paid the principal premium, which was nearly double section pay. When I confronted the conductor about this discrepancy, his answer was, “Your contract is for 2nd and Eb.”

“But I’m playing principal now,” I replied, baffled by his logic. Thus began a long afternoon in his office, me negotiating in a foreign country where unpleasant things were known to happen if you got on the wrong side of the wrong person, him with all the power and getting angrier by the minute. There was no union and no orchestra committee, so no representation on my behalf. As the afternoon wore on, more men from management entered the room in what seemed a concerted gesture of intimidation. I tried to explain that it wasn’t even about the money, which was nominal when converted to dollars, but about respect and equal pay. I was outnumbered, stumbling along in my rudimentary Spanish, all while knowing that I had few alternatives: keep playing principal for less pay than my colleagues, retreat to my “official” chair, or pack my bags and return to the U.S.

I was not entirely without leverage. If I left at that particular time, they would have to find a new principal clarinetist right before the orchestra was to leave on tour. That wasn’t going to be an easy task in a small Mexican town.

Had there been a union contract where terms of employment were clearly delineated, all that unpleasantness could have been avoided. More importantly, I would not have had to face management alone. Following the incident, I felt devalued and targeted. I left the orchestra and Mexico soon after.

Unless we are willing to walk, our bargaining power as individuals is weak to none. But for most of us, quitting is not an option.

Union membership is so much more than health care, pension, higher wages and better working conditions, although it is all of those things. It means that you never have to face management alone. It’s knowing that you can make your working conditions better for yourself and for your colleagues, which by extension improves life for your family and your community. It is knowing that there are codified laws and rules to protect you, and knowing that someone has your back if you are wronged. It means having the space to do your job effectively, knowing that you cannot be arbitrarily fired without due process or recourse.

As the year draws to a close, I am optimistic for our future at Local 802. We have negotiated strong contracts, cut expenses, and are making long overdue improvements to our infrastructure. The freelance orchestra contracts negotiated this year have incorporated the highest wage increases seen at Local 802 in a decade. I am very proud of these accomplishments. We will continue to advocate for you and look forward to an equally successful new year.

Year-end negotiations roundup

The Concert Department is responsible for negotiating and administering 24 individual collective bargaining agreements as well as handling single engagements as they happen. Along with my duties as financial vice president, these contracts require enormous amounts of time and attention and I couldn’t do it without our hardworking orchestra committees. Thanks to their thoughtful diligence and the advice of 802 counsel Harvey Mars, we have successfully negotiated 11 CBA’s this year and are in various stages of process with several others. Negotiations for the New York Pops, which sets the rates for many of the other freelance contracts and the single engagement concert scale, began in 2018 and were completed in June of this year. As previously reported, we have completed contracts with American Classical Orchestra, NYC Gay Men’s Chorus, Bronx Arts Ensemble, Hora Decima Brass Ensemble, NY Scandia, Queens Symphony Orchestra, Riverside Symphony and Orchestra of St. Luke’s.


The New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players recently ratified a new contract and settled an outstanding grievance. Musicians will get a wage increase of 2 percent this year, 2 percent in 2020, and 3 percent in 2021. There are also improvements in the travel time fee and per diem. Thank you to the longstanding committee: Steve Shulman, Deb Spohnheimer, Bob Lawrence, Nancy Ranger and Melanie Bradford.


The Bronx Arts Ensemble ratified a new two-year agreement following more than a year of negotiations. The agreement calls for a 3 percent increase in ticketed chamber music engagements next year. Our ongoing concern with management is the increasing number of engagements that deviate from the original mission of the Bronx Arts Ensemble: bringing quality classical music to the children of the Bronx. Special thanks to the new Bronx Arts committee: Theresa Norris, Ako Sato, Roxanne Bergmann and Mitch Kriegler.

I wish everyone a wonderful, prosperous, and joyous holiday season.

In gratitude and solidarity,

– Karen