Limiting the Damage at Radio City

Volume CVII, No. 10October, 2007

Most members of Local 802 know that the negotiations at Radio City Music Hall in 2005 ended with an unsuccessful strike.

This was followed by a contract that allowed management to eliminate most overtime and also impose the gradual attrition of the pool of first-call musicians.

What was not appreciated immediately was that the contract could actually be interpreted to mean that the pool could be entirely eliminated in 2007.

Language in the agreement covering the hiring of the orchestra stated:

“Commencing with the hiring for the 2007 Christmas Spectacular, for each year that the Christmas Spectacular shall continue, Radio City shall, … provide the contractor with, and post at the Music Hall, a list of the names of at least seventy-five (75 percent) percent of the minimum number of musicians required under the terms of this Agreement to be employed for that year’s production (the “Offer List”). The names on the Offer List shall be taken by Radio City from those musicians who performed in the Christmas Spectacular in the year immediately prior [emphasis added] or who were unable to perform in that production because of a bona fide disability. Such list shall constitute the offer of employment for that year’s production.”

Based on this language, arguably, the 75 percent to be placed on the offer list did not need to come from the pool orchestra — as the union had understood would be the case — but rather could be drawn from the entire list of those who had performed during the prior season.

If “performed” was interpreted to mean having subbed in one show, the orchestra pool could thus have been eliminated in one fell swoop.

During discussions about a proposed T.V. broadcast and DVD — which was resolved separately on acceptable terms — the union learned that management was indeed taking this draconian position regarding that language.

However, we were able to make it clear to management that any such action would have negative consequences.

If Radio City was interested in returning to a normal bargaining relationship, the first step would be to refrain from exploiting loose language to make an already difficult contract exponentially worse.

The result was a series of telephone calls between attorneys for Radio City and Local 802 counsel Danny Engelstein, who was guided by members of the committee and President Landolfi.

The options were discussed and laid out at an orchestra meeting.

Finally, the contract language was rewritten and subsequently approved by the Local 802 Executive Board on Aug. 3.

With respect to this upcoming season, the rewritten language states in part that “the Offer List will be taken by RCP entirely from Employment Pool musicians” — that is, from the current pool orchestra members.

Thereafter, the reductions in the pool are limited to 25 percent per year, which is what had been the understanding of the committee in the 2005 settlement.

This change guarantees that 75 percent of the pool is protected for this year, or about 23 musicians.

(In fact, 26 members of the pool have been rehired for the 2007 season.)

Because only pool orchestra members receive year-round health benefits, these are important numbers and obviously significant to the musicians involved.

It’s true that in the 2008 and 2009 seasons, the pool can be further reduced; however, when the contract expires in 2010, there will still be remaining members in the pool orchestra from which to begin rebuilding this contract.

The involuntary loss of tenure for even one orchestra member is a terrible event, but that is the inevitable result of the miscalculation in the 2005 negotiations.

In the context of that reality, the union was successful in minimizing the potential acceleration of the loss of positions.

We were also successful in persuading Radio City to refrain from taking an extreme position that would have served neither party and ruptured any possibility of a productive relationship.

What this means for the future remains to be seen. No one should have any illusions about restoring what was lost in 2005.

And although it might be politically popular to continue to demonize Radio City forever, it would be irresponsible to do so.

Working with the committee, the union must act prudently, judiciously and intelligently to restore a better relationship.

One thing is for sure. In the next negotiations, we must make every attempt to limit — if not prevent — the annual reductions in the pool, before it disappears entirely.

Mary Landolfi, Bill Dennison and Danny Engelstein contributed to this story.