President’s Report

Meeting a Challenge: Organizing ‘American Songbook’ at Lincoln Center

Volume CX, No. 3March, 2010

Tino Gagliardi

Who’s the employer? This is sometimes one of the most difficult issues when the union negotiates a contract for musicians.

The question has come up again, this time with Lincoln Center and its “American Songbook” series.

The program was launched in 1998 and consists of a series of concerts celebrating popular American music. This year, the concerts are spread out over almost two months and include more than a dozen performances.

In 2000, Local 802 negotiated an agreement with Lincoln Center covering the musicians for this series. The contract was renegotiated in 2004. It called for musicians to be paid at the union’s Saturday night club date scale, along with corresponding pension and health benefits. In 2005, the series moved from the Rose Theatre to the newly built Allen Room. The Rose holds over 1,000 seats whereas the Allen has around 450 seats including some table seating.

The union’s agreement expired in 2007.

This year, the program series includes Marianne Faithful, Martha Plimpton, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Chita Rivera. One or more musicians back each act. Martha Plimpton, for example is using a six-piece band, including a conductor. A pianist will back Rebecca Luker.

In mid-January we met with Lincoln Center to negotiate a new agreement. The meeting was cordial; however, Lincoln Center’s director of human relations and its general counsel made their position clear that Lincoln Center is a “presenter” – not a producer – of the series. They alleged that under most circumstances they do not employ musicians. They further said that, as presenters, they hire the acts and the acts then employ and pay the musicians. In addition they stated that Lincoln Center does not own the Allen Room; it rents it from the actual corporate owner, which is Jazz at Lincoln Center.

When we questioned Lincoln Center’s position as an employer and producer in the past, they responded that Lincoln Center sometimes does produce acts in the series. In these cases, Lincoln Center would be willing to sign a new agreement with Local 802 to cover only those productions, such as those referred to as “galas.”

We did not respond to that proposal; we are unwilling to concede that Lincoln Center is not a producer or employer of this series. We did, however, make it clear that we were there to represent all of our members who were being engaged for the series.

The Lincoln Center representatives responded by reciting the New York Department of Labor’s guidelines for determining whether a performing artist is an independent contractor or an employee.

We departed on friendly terms with a commitment to have a follow-up meeting.

Nevertheless, the situation remains troubling.

It is unreasonable for a major corporate “presenter” of such a series to expect the union to bargain with each individual act that performs. We believe that whether they are the producer or presenter is irrelevant, as is their interpretation of their obligation under the New York State Labor Department’s independent contractor guidelines.

Organizing 13 or 14 different acts over an eight to nine week season that is just beginning presents many problems for the musicians and the union and raises questions as to Lincoln Center’s good faith in this situation.

Since each act has only one or two performances, successfully negotiating a contract for this season will be difficult.

Obviously, this situation may not have happened had the union been more vigilant in internal organizing, especially if we had reached out to those musicians who were engaged in the series after the expiration of our last agreement.

Recognizing this, it is up to all of us to establish our position going forward, a task that this union is committed to accomplishing.

Where do we go from here? None of us are happy with Lincoln Center’s stated position in this matter. Therefore, before the next season, it is essential that we implement a strategy to restore contractual coverage for all musicians employed in upcoming “American Songbook” productions regardless of the Lincoln Center management’s perception of their role in the employment of musicians in this series.


March is Women’s History Month and there are several features in this issue of Allegro that readers will find interesting, including our question of the month that asks what the union can do – if anything – to improve the status of female musicians.

Also, check out our feature interviews with jazz pianist Bertha Hope-Booker and Met violist Marilyn Stroh.

Women’s History Month is a relatively recent designation, but International Women’s Day goes all the way back to March 8, 1909, when women protested the terrible working conditions that many were forced to endure, especially in the textile industry.

On a related note, each year the labor movement remembers the 146 victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, which was the largest industrial disaster in the history of New York City. Most of the victims were immigrant women. The fire led to legislation requiring improved factory safety standards and helped spur the growth of the textile workers’ union (the ILGWU). This year’s commemoration, which is the 99th anniversary of the tragedy, will be Thursday, March 25 from noon to 1 p.m. at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street at the site of the original building.