Learning From Recent Events is Critical to Our Future

Recording Vice President's Report

Volume CVI, No. 2February, 2006

Bill Dennison

Well over 200 members attended the Feb. 14 Local 802 membership meeting. They came because of questions about the recent Radio City Music Hall negotiations and because of concerns that the open and democratic traditions of our union appeared threatened. On this basis alone, the meeting was an historic achievement.

The meeting demonstrated that members do care — not just about their own particular contract or work place issue, but about the overall work and well being of Local 802. The collective strength and wisdom that comes from an active and involved membership is critical to all that we do. If we are able to draw the right lessons from the RCMH negotiations, we will be a much stronger union in the coming months as we prepare for the important negotiations that lie ahead.

It is unfortunate that it took so long to begin this discussion and that instead of debating issues and strategies, charges were filed against Jay Schaffner and myself. The membership did not agree with that approach and made clear that dissenting views should be welcomed and not viewed as disloyal.

As to the charges themselves, they were false and indefensible. They served only to divide and divert us from the important issues our members face trying to make a living in this business. While they have been withdrawn, placing the whole affair on the front page of Allegro last month was, I believe, a mistake that unnecessarily exposed our internal differences to both friend and foe alike.

What is most important now is that we move forward and confront the immediate tasks ahead. We have to learn from the RCMH experience and then, as one member put it, “find a way to make sure the business of the union is carried out.” I couldn’t agree more.

In regard to learning from our experiences, the Feb. 14 meeting was only a beginning. I heard from many after the meeting who were still uncertain about what to conclude from the experience. There was too much lost by the 35 members of that orchestra and the 100 or more subs who work at the Music Hall not to probe deeper into what happened.

We can’t afford to take the position that everyone did his or her best and what happened, well — just happened. We have to know why, because we must not repeat it.

Certainly the RCMH orchestra committee did their very best in what was a very difficult negotiation. If anything, we all share the anguish they went through. We have to make sure that, in the future, no committee has to go through a similar experience. They should not be put on the firing line without union leadership taking responsibility for better planning, for a sober assessment of the balance of forces and without a strategy that has a chance of success.

Strikes are a last resort and remain effective weapons most of all when the show can’t go on without us. In those cases we have real power that can be used to protect and improve the lives of professional musicians. There are, however, a growing number of circumstances in which we can’t stop the show, at least not by ourselves. If that’s the case we have to be creative, plan more carefully and look for complementary strategies.

Likewise public campaigns can be effective. But again, you have to be able to inflict real economic damage. Enough people have to stop buying tickets or stop purchasing a product. Public campaigns have to be vetted very carefully and built on factual information that can withstand challenge.

Perhaps nothing is more important in dealing with today’s large and in some cases global entertainment corporations than solidarity. We have to build solid alliances with the other entertainment industry unions. There is simply no alternative. At RCMH, for a number of reasons, that solidarity was not possible and some of the trust and confidence that had been built prior to and during the 2003 Broadway negotiations has been damaged.

We have to work very hard over the next year to rebuild that solidarity and trust. Each and every member, whereever you work, needs to reach out to the members of the other unions and guilds to build the cooperation that will be necessary in future negotiations, both theirs and ours.

The Feb. 14 membership meeting and the nearly 350 members who signed petitions requesting such a meeting represent a powerful affirmation of the democratic traditions of our union. Members want debate and discussion. They want sound and coherent strategies based on the real world we face every day, not sound bites and platitudes. We have to plan better, listen to each other more carefully and be smarter.

As members I would urge you to stay involved, ask the tough questions and make the officers level with you about the choices we face, no matter how difficult they may be. That’s the only way we are going to protect our jobs and our futures.