Making the Choices that Strengthen Our Union

Concert Notes

Volume XCIX, No. 10November, 1999

Mary Landolfi

The Viewpoint column in last month’s Allegro contained a well-formulated commentary by Sato Moughalian concerning the loss of a freelance job to a group of student musicians. The editor promised that I would describe Local 802’s plans to deal with this trend in this month’s issue. Although the Department of New Organizing has become somewhat adept at responding to these situations, as was proven in the campaign against the Metropolitan Opera Guild, anything more than a short term solution to individual situations is not easy to achieve. I have no magic bullet to offer which will bring this or any other job back once it becomes non-union. More importantly, we cannot be assured that we will be victorious on a long term basis in preventing union ensembles from being replaced by students unless substantial numbers of our members, including those who are not now directly affected, become involved in changing our circumstances.

The use of conservatory students and recent graduates as replacement workers is still relatively rare. However, in all likelihood this phenomenon will continue to grow if all of our members do not come to agree that it is a threat that cannot be ignored. Combine the pressure that arts organizations feel because of funding cuts with the fact that the economic theory currently being espoused in this country is an anti-union form of social Darwinism, and you have a situation in which a manager or producer considers his/her musicians just another cost item to be reduced in any way possible. Unlike the situation that existed when Lincoln Center was built, it is not only thinkable to have a non-union orchestra, it is considered desirable in some circles.

The replacement of a few freelance musicians on a single choral concert is but a nibble around the margins of our collective livelihood, and some may dismiss it as an unimportant, if unfortunate, event. I would argue that this is a misguided attitude. About a year ago I saw a statistic that indicated that, in every year, the conservatories in the United States graduate 15 times as many musicians as are currently employed in the profession. At that rate, every professional player could quit today – and within ten years we would again see hundreds of applicants for each vacancy.

Granted, not all of these musicians perform at a level which we would find satisfactory, but a number are eminently qualified for positions in the best orchestras, as is proven by the ability of some very recent graduates to win important positions in prominent musical groups. However much we may wish it to be otherwise, the quality of our playing will not be sufficient to save us – or, to be more precise, the performance quality of our best members will not be sufficient to save the union as a whole. Making sure that all musicians are under the union umbrella, however, will make it possible for us to insist that quality is rewarded.

To this point we have been fortunate. Whenever Local 802 has found it necessary to contact young musicians about the potential dangers of being used as replacement workers, we have been rewarded with understanding. Most young musicians know the precarious nature of a career in music and acknowledge that their future will a better one if it is not easy for the employer to discard them when it becomes economically expedient. This is an idealistic attitude which we must value and nurture, particularly because the messages which these students often receive about the union is not at all favorable. All too often, students are indoctrinated with the usual anti-union accusations – that the union is only interested in collecting dues, in blackballing people who don’t follow the rules, and in harassing non-members in the middle of the night. Given that many of them have grown up without ever having had contact with a union, we can hardly blame them for finding this believable, if only initially.

So what should we do? If we can be replaced, should we consider ourselves dinosaurs on the way to extinction? It might seem that I am arguing for surrender, but nothing could be further from the truth. We do, however, have to surrender the old way of doing things and the old way of thinking about our situation.

It is no longer good enough to trust that our student colleagues will find their way into the union when they graduate. We have to begin outreach from the time students enter conservatory, so that the scare tactics don’t work when there is a conflict between the union and an employer. Better yet, when a purchaser of music calls a conservatory for an orchestra, the reply should be “our students only work for union scale.” We can make that the message if our members who teach at Manhattan, Mannes and Juilliard insist that their students not be trained to replace their colleagues. We can do it if those members insist on being union all of the time.

It is also no longer good enough to accept that some jobs are union while others are not, based on some arcane set of historical precedents. There is no reason why virtually all the music that takes place on the plaza at Lincoln Center is non-union, except that we permit it to be that way. Again, we must insist that we are union all of the time – not just when it is expedient on an individual basis.

Will this be easy? Of course it will not, but in plain terms, our union must grow or die. We can make choices which will increase the strength and influence of the union even if it requires sacrifice on a short term basis – or we can sit by while the nibbling moves up the food chain. I would argue that the former is the best strategy.