Now that I have been serving as president of Local 802 for almost three years, I’ve developed a few opinions about the state of our union.
It’s easy to place the blame for our conflicts on the events of the last four years or so, but I’ve come to the conclusion that this isn’t altogether true.
I think to some extent we are fighting over whether to take the long or short view of our situation and that the conflict over which approach is better has been with us for a long time.
To divorce the issue from the present, I’d like to give an example from over ten years ago.
In 1994, “Beauty and the Beast” opened on Broadway and recorded a cast album.
At some point after the opening, Disney came to the union asking for a break – they wanted to put out multiple language versions of the album and, at that time, the SLRA contract required a full-scale cast album payment every time the instrumental tracks were re-used.
Disney was willing to pay three times the SLRA rates for the right to make an album in an unlimited number of languages.
There was some discussion, but ultimately the decision was made to refuse.
We were perfectly within our rights and there was nothing (at least initially) that Disney could do, but from that point the story takes an ugly turn.
We had hoped that Disney would pay and that the orchestra would have a revenue stream in addition to the weekly pay of the show, but it didn’t turn out that way.
Disney made the foreign language cast albums, but did it by recording the tracks outside of the United States.
Even worse, when the SLRA came up for re-negotiation, Disney came to the table and demanded that the provision which covered replacement of vocal tracks be removed.
The result? The “Wicked” orchestra now has to endure the re-use of its tracks in multiple foreign language albums for no additional pay at all.
We lost because we substituted a short-term “no” that could only last until the SLRA expired, for a long-term solution that might have satisfied producers’ budget concerns and still gotten musicians multiple payments.
This is called tactical rather than strategic thinking.
That is the earliest example that I have been able to identify in which Local 802 took a hard line position which worked to our disadvantage in the long run.
It seems that we so often find ourselves in the position of having to accept situations that we don’t like that, when we do get a chance to say “no,” we do so without considering the possible negative ramifications.
In my opinion, it’s a habit we should lose; any response to an employer whether yes or no should be carefully considered.
Fast forward to 2009
Another good example of short-term thinking was the recent Broadway media negotiations.
When the League and Disney proposed re-opening our contract to mimic the new Equity media provisions last year, I thought the analysis was fairly clear and indicated that we had to respond by at least indicating willingness to talk.
These were the facts:
1. We could not prevent the entire show from being recorded. We had a provision in the contract requiring the League to negotiate payment for use of recorded show material but nothing prohibiting capture. Once Equity changed its contract to allow capture that had previously been banned, any show could be recorded in its entirety.
2. Jingle payments were getting more rare. A number of shows, particularly those which begin outside of New York, never receive payments for commercials because the tracks are made elsewhere. Technology can only make that easier.
3. We would not get more money by forcing the producers to wait until our contract expired. Some on the committee believed that the opposite was true. In response I pointed out on several occasions that, once the entire contract was open, the producers could hold beneficial provisions of our contract (run-of-show, subbing or pension) hostage to agreement on a media deal.
In that scenario, it is unlikely that we could get the support of the public; more importantly, other unions (particularly Equity) would not support a demand for more money than they themselves would get or to defend provisions that they do not enjoy.
No one on the committee ever outlined a credible plan that would pressure the producers to pay us more than the actors.
Waiting only meant lost money to musicians and, as it turned out, a lost opportunity to get a raise.
In spite of these facts, we delayed for almost eight months before the media agreement was finalized.
Just as in the case with “Beauty and the Beast,” our inclination to say “no,” merely because we could, caused us to overlook the long-term ramifications of our response.
It was against this backdrop that we finally met with the League and Disney on April 3, 2009 to consummate a promotional media agreement.
The atmosphere was somewhat unpleasant because the League interpreted our reluctance to meet as lack of cooperation.
Furthermore, we now had an additional impediment – the delay in dealing with the proposal put our increases months behind those of actors and the committee deemed this unacceptable.
The Local 802 lawyer and I argued forcefully to management at the table that we must have our media rates increase at the same time as the actors.
During a sidebar with management, however, it became clear that we could only accelerate these increases by agreeing to the new bargaining pattern that the League and Disney had set in response to the collapse in the economy – a freeze in wages.
The eight-month delay had cost us the chance for a raise.
After returning to the 802 caucus, our lawyer suggested that we counter by agreeing to the freeze if the producers gave us the media raises with the actors and extended the minimums for one year, but that we should not propose this compromise unless we were prepared to support it.
I went around the room and asked each person his or her opinion.
The level of enthusiasm was far from uniform; some were anxious to accept, others were ambivalent, but no one argued against proposing it to management.
I know that a few now assert that they were not in favor, but they were mute when it mattered.
Worst yet to come
By the beginning of the next week, some committee members began to disavow the agreement and their participation in reaching it.
One said that he thought he had made a mistake, another claimed that shaking hands with management after they had accepted our proposal had no significance, another stated that she supported the agreement but couldn’t speak out for fear of losing employment.
I know that some members are unhappy that this agreement came with a freeze in wages for a year; I understand and share their frustration over a lost opportunity.
It is tempting to believe (particularly when some irresponsible individuals indicate that it is acceptable to behave in this manner) that we can go back and do a negotiation over, but everyone should understand the context.
We made a proposal; management accepted it.
Once that happens, the union has a legal obligation to recommend the agreement to the membership. Failure to do so could be deemed bargaining in bad faith and result in consequences for the union. Even more importantly, we would have no credibility with management negotiators in the future.
This becomes understandable if one considers our potential reaction if a management were ever to propose a resolution to a contract and then renege after we agreed.
We must always remember that there are those on the other side of the bargaining table who have the long knives out for us; succumbing to the wishes of those who wanted to see this agreement refused after participating in its negotiation would only have empowered those in management who are most hostile to our interests.
Although it is unfortunate that some did not understand this context at the time, I still believe that the majority of the membership made the right decision in ratifying the agreement.
What can we do to avoid this confusion and frustration in the future?
First, as I indicated in the beginning, we have to start thinking on a more long-term basis.
We have to avoid the trap of saying “no” because it feels good when, in fact, “yes” would serve us better and stave off future problems.
We have to be willing to confront reality rather than asking our representatives to pretend that we still exist in a bygone era.
Negotiations are a crucible. Those who are involved often have to make difficult choices – choices that cannot be made without honestly expressing opinions in the moment, being willing to stand up for them and to explain them to the people we represent.
In this process, second-guessers should stay home.
Those among us who would build their own reputation by denying the necessity to make hard decisions betray their colleagues and the union itself.
If we fail to appreciate that, we are setting ourselves up for failure and, as we have already discovered, those failures come at a very high price.