Ken James Orchestras, a Long Island club date office, is the newest focus of Local 802’s campaign to ensure that professional musicians receive health and pension benefits.
The campaign has won a series of important victories over the last year and a half, convincing some of the toughest and most important employers in the single engagement club date field to do the right thing by paying musicians health and pension benefits. Agencies from Starlight Orchestras to New York City Swing have seen the light and agreed to provide benefits.
However, Local 802’s research showed that while Ken James does a lot of business in Long Island, he refuses to provide basic benefits for his musicians. This causes real hardships to the musicians, who must pay the bills personally when they need to see a doctor, or find that they can’t afford to retire. It also gives Ken James an unfair advantage over the other offices that do pay benefits, creating downward pressure on wages and benefits throughout the field.
One 802 member who has played for years with club date offices that do provide benefits told Allegro, “My pension is a critical part of our monthly income, and our health benefits pay for our doctors, medicines, and lab fees. The value of that cannot be overstated. To work without pension and health is a hardship no professional musician should have to live with. Ken James has been a successful office for years, and the musicians who made it that way deserve pension and health benefits.”
Local 802’s campaign to uphold area standards “is for all the musicians who struggled to win these standards over the years – both the musicians who are now getting a pension and health insurance and need it to be protected, and the musicians who work for Ken James, who have a right to the same protections,” said President Bill Moriarty.
Union representatives spoke confidentially with the musicians who work for the office. On Jan. 10, Local 802 called Ken James himself, to let him know that the musicians felt they deserved benefits. While some employers, committed to the welfare of their musicians, have voluntarily agreed to do the right thing, Ken James wouldn’t even return a phone call. When union reps finally were able to reach him, he told them to talk to his lawyer, and said the lawyer would call the next day.
After the lawyer failed to call, 802 decided it was time to take the campaign public. The union immediately sent out about 75 letters to Ken James musicians, explaining the situation. Within a week, organizers had spoken to party planners and the managers of venues that Ken James regularly plays, informing them of the orchestra’s refusal to pay benefits.
On Feb. 1, 802 organizers and reps – carrying flyers and a five-foot banner that read “Shame on Ken James” – visited the office where he meets with prospective clients. James called the police to try to make the leafleters leave. But when two squad cars arrived minutes later, the officers were friendly and explained that they respected 802’s First Amendment right to publicize Ken James’ refusal to provide pension and health.
Later that evening, 802 organizers showed up again – this time to distribute information to patrons of a Ken James engagement at the Crest Hollow Country Club. These actions reflect 802’s determination to follow Ken James wherever he goes, to make sure the public and potential clients know about his refusal to uphold basic standards. “If Ken James thinks we’ll go away in one month, six months, or one year, he’s wrong,” said Senior Organizer Joe Eisman. “It’s simple. It’s about pension and health, and we’ll keep escalating the pressure on Ken James until he shows his musicians the respect they deserve by providing benefits.”
If you or someone you know works with Ken James or may in the future, call the New Organizing Department at (212) 245-4802, ext. 143 or ext. 191. All calls are strictly confidential.
Chris Meckstroth, an apprentice with the AFL-CIO’s Organizing Institute, worked on the Ken James campaign during his three-month stint at Local 802. He is now working as an organizer for HERE Local 6.