The power of a T-shirt

Musicians of the NYC Ballet Orchestra fight back with creativity

Volume 123, No. 10November, 2023

Julia DeRosa

The fight continues for a fair contract with the musicians of the New York City Ballet. In addition to traditional union actions like musical rallies, another part of the battle has included inspiring moments of creativity. Below, Julia DeRosa tells the story of how the musicians’ homemade T-shirts have turned into a powerful symbol of resistance.

It has been a fall season like no other at the New York City Ballet. Of course, many of the things that make the David H. Koch Theater feel like home are unchanged; the same glittering geometry of the ceiling high above, the same metallic hum of the rising golden curtain, the same unmistakable pitter-patter of pointe shoes overhead. Most important of all, the same people making the magic happen night after night.

But there is change in the air — at the ballet, at Local 802, in NYC, and in the country as a whole — as the “hot union summer” has continued into autumn.

From management’s point of view, the big news this fall was the company’s 75th anniversary. It was a time to celebrate the immense contribution that NYCB has made to Lincoln Center and to the dance world. A magnificent occasion, to be sure.

But things were not so jubilant down in the orchestra pit. We’d been embroiled in bitter contract negotiations for five months already, with no end in sight. We’d playing without a contract since August 31, and the five of us on the orchestra committee were working around the clock to crunch numbers, understand complex health insurance issues, and generally find a path forward. The pressure to protect the livelihoods of our 67 members was — and is — intense.

It feels existential this time — like if we don’t get this right, the job could change forever. City Ballet has traditionally had an excellent reputation for compensating its musicians fairly. The preservation and elevation of industry standards, as well as careful consideration of the impact of inflation, has meant that the musicians of the NYCB orchestra are able and willing to prioritize the 24 precious weeks in the theater.

Needless to say, Covid changed things, as did a change in leadership on the board of directors. Management’s strategies have been relatively transparent — delay, play the unions off each other, and hide the decision makers. And of course, their actions don’t match their words. If they really valued the orchestra, wouldn’t they want to restore our salaries and purchasing power, and wouldn’t they keep our health insurance intact?

We needed creative ways to get our message across to the audience.

One answer was simple: put it on a T-shirt. That way we could continue to do our jobs and keep the integrity of the performance intact. To keep the costs minimal, we decided to make the shirts ourselves; cutting our logo and letters spelling FAIR CONTRACT out using a “Cricut machine,” and then heat pressing each shirt. It was truly a group effort. We made 105 shirts one Saturday afternoon in between shows, and we wore our shirts for every performance of the fall season. The orchestra lounge that Saturday was a sight to behold: orchestra members working together, problem solving, and sticking together.

After all this effort, we’ve been able to use our T-shirts in simple but powerful ways, such as wearing them in the pit so audiences can see our solidarity. And we wore them during our “tuning action,” where we stood in silence before the tuning note.

Our creativity, unity and strength has confirmed one thing: I have never been more proud to be a member of the New York City Ballet Orchestra. Please continue to follow our fight for a fair contract and join in upcoming actions. We’ll keep you posted at

Julia DeRosa is principal oboist for the New York City Ballet Orchestra and serves on the musicians’ negotiating committee.