It’s Union Time at the Apollo

Ray Chew and the Crew Demand Benefits and Dignity

Volume C, No. 5May, 2000

Mikael Elsila

Click here for a sampling of letters supporting unionization at the Apollo Theatre.

Four Local 802 members are fighting for union representation and union benefits at Harlem’s historic Apollo Theatre, and their battle is drawing wide support. The musicians are Ray Chew, Bobby Douglas, Artie Reynolds and Ralph Rolle. On March 1 they asked management to formally recognize Local 802 as their representative – a request the Apollo has so far denied.

The quartet, which performs as Ray Chew and the Crew, is the house band for Wednesday’s Amateur Night at the Apollo, where aspiring entertainers try out their material to an often sold-out crowd of tourists and local fans. They are the only entertainment workers at the Apollo who are not unionized. (The stagehands won representation and a first contract through Local 1 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) in 1998. But negotiations for their second contract were going nowhere, until the stagehands threatened to strike the Feb. 21 Bradley-Gore debate at the Apollo.)

On March 22, as hundreds of supporters rallied on 125th Street in front of the theatre, band members and labor leaders addressed the crowd while organizers passed out flyers to the many patrons in line for Amateur Night. Among those who turned out were members of Hotel Employees Local 100, Broadcast Engineers Local 16, Retail Workers Local 3, the SEIU regional office, Scenic Designers, United Farm Workers, Jobs with Justice and clergy, including the Rev. Robert Preston Washington of Memorial Baptist Church in Harlem. Local 802 President Bill Moriarity emceed the event.

Organizers and supporters continue to leaflet the Amateur Night performances every Wednesday, starting at 6:15 p.m.

Meanwhile, the union has been faxing a flood of e-mails from allies across the country to Grace Blake, the Apollo’s executive director. She has refused to discuss the matter with members of the public who call seeking to discuss the situation.

“The reason why we are pursuing unionization is for the benefit, dignity and integrity of the Apollo and to continue its fine legacy. This is not just for me personally but for everyone in the future,” said Ray Chew, keyboardist and musical director. “It’s time for the Apollo to come into the new millennium instead of being anchored in the past.”

Supporters have been pressuring Apollo management to allow a neutral third party to verify that the quartet wants a union. Commonly called a “card check,” this is the easiest way to gain union recognition, especially in a unit of only four workers.

But management has repeatedly said no, and is basically dumping the situation in the lap of its lawyer and the National Labor Relations Board. Even though the group has been playing at the theatre for eight years, the Apollo claims the four musicians aren’t its employees. If management tries to prolong the matter at the labor board, it can stall, delay, and appeal for months or even years.

The Apollo’s legal counsel, Darrell Gay, also represented management against the theatre’s stagehands. He took a hard line against them, calling their demands “reprehensible” in a New York Times article on Aug. 27, 1998. Gay’s firm describes itself as having “strong expertise” in “union avoidance,” in its profile in the Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory.

Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields recently wrote Executive Director Blake, pointing out that the right of employees “to mutually select a representative is a well established right. It is my hope that the Apollo, as an important community institution, will respect those rights.”

New York State AFL-CIO President Denis M. Hughes; Josephine LeBeau, DC 1707 Executive Director and an AFSCME International Vice President; Edgar Romney, Manager-Secretary of Local 23-25, UNITE! and a UNITE Executive Vice-President; George Boncoraglio, Metropolitan Region President of CSWA (Local 1000 AFSCME) and Rabbi Michael Feinberg, Executive Director of the Greater New York Labor-Religion Coalition, all have written letters in support of the musicians.

Apollo staff have also delayed providing the union with information about the theatre’s financial condition. They did not immediately supply the theatre’s Form 990 returns, as required by law, when union organizers approached them on April 4. The Form 990 shows such information as who is on the board of directors, the organization’s income, and salaries of some its highest-paid employees.

After twice denying the forms to Local 802, the theatre finally faxed them to the union two days later. However, apparent omissions and discrepancies in the Apollo’s financial report has led the union to file a Complaint and Inquiry with the Charities Bureau of the Office of the Attorney General. Apparently, the theater did not name which government agencies or other contributors gave it money. There is also an apparent inconsistency in how much money the theatre receives from the government in total.

Additionally, since the labor dispute started, Coca-Cola’s name has not been mentioned on stage, and “Coca-Cola” has been absent from the Apollo marquee. (For the past four years, a “Coca-Cola” banner would unfurl at a point during the band’s show while the musicians would play the Coke jingle. Local 802 has sent the theater a letter asking for a clarification of its relationship with Coke.)

“If the Apollo has to be dragged kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century then so be it,” said Bobby Douglas, keyboardist and vocalist. “Members of the Harlem community have fought for equal rights and equal pay for so many years. To be represented by an establishment as historical as the Apollo Theatre – but run by an executive director who fights against these very important needs of the very musicians who help keep that establishment afloat – is simply stepping back to economic slavery.”

In addition to Amateur Night, Ray Chew and the Crew also provide music for It’s Showtime at the Apollo, which is separately produced by Inner City Theatre Group. The band’s performances for this employer are covered under a union agreement.

“What we’re asking for is basically what we should have,” said Ralph Rolle, drummer. “We’re not going to be young musicians for the rest of our lives. We should be able to have something to show for the amount of time and hours we have put in.” The musicians have gone eight years without benefits or a raise.

For more information on the Apollo campaign, contact Tim Dubnau at ext. 143 or Mikael Elsila at ext. 187. Supporters are invited to send e-mails of support to, to call the Apollo at (212) 531-5310, or to help pass out flyers in front of the Apollo on Wednesday evenings at 6:15. Please call now if you want to volunteer for the campaign.