In the labor movement, we often have to literally raise our voices to be heard. We take to the streets with inspirational rhetoric, impassioned speeches, and bullhorns. These tactics are necessary, effective, and — when used strategically — can get us what we need. But there is another strategy that can be just as powerful: silence.
Frustrated that our words have had little to no effect on negotiations, the musicians of the New Jersey Festival Orchestra — who are represented by Local 802 — used silence to speak louder than words in a recent rehearsal. Despite our bargaining in good faith for over five years, despite concessions given several years ago (to “help” the orchestra), despite low wages and management’s inability to follow basic health and safety guidance, NJFO musicians have consistently performed beautifully, bringing our artistry to the community in and around Westfield, New Jersey.
NJFO management, however, has repeatedly failed to understand how to operate an orchestra on a professional level. They hit a new low this fall when an engagement was canceled with only two days’ notice on a busy weekend in October without compensation to musicians. Fed up and out of patience, we decided to engage in a show of protest and solidarity at the next rehearsal. When music director David Wroe gave the downbeat, instead of raising our instruments, we sat in silence. For five full minutes, every person on the stage, all wearing Local 802 buttons, sat without speaking or playing a note.
This seemingly simple action served its purpose. It was not only an empowering show of unity, but it got management’s attention. Our next action happened a month later when members of the orchestra leafleted the audience as they entered the hall.
“Leafleting gave us the opportunity to inform our audience of the serious issues the musicians need to have addressed. Many of the patrons were surprised to learn their orchestra was composed of Local 802 musicians, and several did agree that five-and-a-half years without a contract was not right,” said Orchestra Committee member Daryl Goldberg.
The problems with NJFO management are many, including a refusal to contribute health benefits since the inception of the contract. This is particularly unconscionable given the ever-rising cost of healthcare and the challenge we have as freelance musicians to remain on the plan (see below). Equally egregious is a conflict of interest between NJFO and the music director’s personal contracting business, perhaps a topic to be explored in another column. Because musicians are speaking out in so many ways, NJFO management knows that we are activated, and the current situation cannot stand.
HEALTH BENEFITS AND THE SHORTFALL FUND
By now, many of you have received letters from the Local 802 health fund regarding the January 1 increase in contribution level to reach Plan A. The new level is $3,000 per six-month period, up from the current $2,150. (In 2020, it was $2,000.) What you may not be aware of is that most of our single engagement contracts include an “escalator clause” in health benefits. This clause states that “in the event that the trustees of the Local 802 Musicians Health Fund increase the eligibility level of either Plan A or Plan B during the term of this agreement, the employer agrees to increase its contribution amount by the same percentage as the said increase in the eligibility level.” If your contract contains this clause, the orchestra is contractually obligated to remit the increased percentage amount towards your health benefits. Yes, there will be some sticker shock to our employers, but we must be sure employers comply, both to bolster the health of the fund and to help keep as many of our colleagues covered by the plan as possible.
Thanks to some creative thinking by a member many years ago, we also have the benefit of the shortfall fund in our freelance orchestra contracts. If you are requesting a contribution from the fund, the link will become live at 9:30 a.m. on Jan. 30. Click here for more information.
Now that the noise of the holiday season is over, I wish you all a bit of peace and quiet, and a happy, healthy, and prosperous New Year!