Musicians at The Early Ear Sign Their First Contract

Winning a Voice at Work

Volume CI, No. 10October, 2001

Mikael Elsila

After nine months of negotiations, Local 802 and The Early Ear, Inc., have reached a first contract. Early in September teachers ratified the agreement, marking the third time in as many years that the union has successfully organized part-time music teachers.

“It’s a great feeling having this contract,” said Teresa Okhranchuk, a member of the bargaining committee and a teacher at The Early Ear. She and her fellow negotiators – Sandy Opatow, Eva Rainforth and Maryna Rogozhyna – spent dozens of hours at the bargaining table, including one session that lasted until dawn.

“I’m so happy,” said Rainforth. “It took a long time, but it was worth it.”

Dr. Ilya Lehman, owner of The Early Ear, runs four sites in Manhattan and Brooklyn where children as young as six months old get early experiences in music. He hires two groups of musicians: teachers who play and demonstrate multiple instruments, and accompanists who play the piano. Before winning their new union agreement, many of the pianists were making $10 per class (although a few were making more), while teachers were paid anywhere from $25 to $45 per class. The employer offered health insurance for some employees, but they had to pay a monthly co-pay.

All that is changed now. Last November, pianists and teachers at The Early Ear came together to form a union. Motivated in part by inconsistent work rules and a confusing employee contract, an overwhelming majority of the musicians – 18 out of 21 – signed cards indicating they wanted to be represented by Local 802. On Dec. 15 Dr. Lehman voluntarily recognized the union, shortening a process that can often be fraught with delays at the National Labor Relations Board.

“If musicians are satisfied it makes the business better,” said Dr. Lehman. “I always tried to understand every point the union brought up, and we bargained well together. This contract is also a win for me, because my employees are happy.” Indeed, the pace of negotiations quickened dramatically in the last month of bargaining, when the employer decided not to bring his lawyers to the table – a gesture that the union reciprocated.

“By the end of bargaining, both sides came to understand that providing decent wages, pension and health benefits, and paid time off, would actually benefit The Early Ear by encouraging full-time and long-term employment,” said 802 Organizing Director Joe Eisman. “We allowed some time to phase in these benefits because we were pleased that Dr. Lehman was willing to make some dramatic changes that will not only improve his business, but will directly benefit the teachers and piano players as well.”


The union has also helped part-time music teachers organize in the Jazz and Contemporary Music Program at the New School, and the New School’s Guitar Study Center.

“I’m really happy about the victory at The Early Ear,” said saxophonist Arun Luthra, who teaches in the New School’s Jazz Program. “I’m thrilled to see area standards being brought up. Raising standards for any group of musicians is important.”

And keyboardist Ed Baker, a teacher at the Guitar Study Center, told Allegro, “The union’s success and presence in music schools is helping musicians finally enjoy the benefits and security that most other people working in schools have enjoyed for years.”

The agreement boasts a 50 percent pay raise for most pianists, who will now earn a minimum of $15 per 40-minute class. Teachers will earn a minimum of $25. The three-year contract provides raises of 4 percent in the first year, 3.5 percent in the second and 3.5 percent in the third, and guarantees overtime pay.

Other benefits include employer-paid health insurance with no cost to teachers who work a minimum of 25 classes per week or accompanists who work 32 hours. Pension contributions of 4 percent will begin at the end of the third year.

The contract provides three paid sick days per year, three paid personal days per year, three unpaid personal days per year, three days of bereavement leave and nine weeks of maternity or paternity leave. Musicians must work a minimum of just five classes per week to qualify for time off. There had previously been no official time off at all, paid or unpaid. This provision – which has not yet been achieved by teachers in the two New School programs – represents a major victory for part-time musicians.

Previous agreements that musicians had been asked to sign are null and void. A seniority system will govern transfers or layoffs. Discipline may be imposed for just cause only, a provision which also covers discipline for artistic reasons.

The employer agreed to continue to treat all musicians as employees, and withhold taxes. The agreement also contains maintenance of benefits language. All perks that musicians previously enjoyed will remain in effect.

Teachers and pianists will receive full compensation for classes that are cancelled with less than two days’ notice, and there is guaranteed time between classes. And the musicians now are guaranteed the ability to substitute classes and shape their own schedules, which may not be unreasonably denied.

“Now the rules are clear under the contract,” said Tamami Aburakawa, a pianist at The Early Ear. “This makes the program more fun; it’s good for the kids and the parents.”

“I’m so proud of us; it’s amazing,” said Sandy Opatow, a member of the negotiating committee who has since left the school. “It shows what you can do when you work together.”

The entire Organizing Department worked on the campaign, with the assistance of Local 802 attorneys Harvey Mars and Leonard Leibowitz.