President’s Report

Radio City in Perspective: Our Fight to Keep the Music Live

Volume CV, No. 12December, 2005

David Lennon

The crisis at Radio City, and the innumerable difficult decisions that were made throughout the struggle, will most certainly be the subject of much discussion and debate for some time to come. In so many ways, our fight at Radio City was an unconventional one that often called for unconventional measures. I offer my overall analysis of the Radio City struggle in this report.


Click for larger image.

For nearly 75 years, the Radio City Orchestra has graced the stage of Radio City Music Hall. (A historical Radio City Retrospective is provided also in this issue.)

With the hijacking of the American dream by “Corporate America,” no ground is sacred, not even the hallowed halls of Radio City. Today I heard the chilling phrase “Corporate Theatre,” for the first time. It is the ultimate oxymoron. When art merely becomes industry, we all suffer. In today’s multi-billion dollar corporate environment, it should be no surprise that our negotiation with Cablevision marked the most significant frontal corporate attack that Local 802 has ever sustained.

From the beginning of these negotiations, which began in June 2005, and throughout their entirety, management refused to ever seriously discuss our proposals. And, although they acknowledged that the “Christmas Spectacular” was enormously profitable, with gross earnings of over $75 million per year, we were confronted with threats and concessionary proposals, i.e., “if you don’t accept pay-cuts or givebacks, we will replace you with tapes or half-priced scabs.”

Many issues were used as “red herrings,” that is, phony issues designed to divert the attention of the union and the public from understanding the real issues. This was demonstrated by their “pulling concessionary demands off the table” (while maintaining others) and offering a short-term rollover contract with minuscule increases, all the while, threatening the use of tapes or scabs.

Without any economic rationale, management insisted on proposals that would have resulted in substantial losses of income to the musicians. That issue would be pivotal in our public relations campaign and the interpretation by the public (and our colleagues in the labor community) of our campaign message. It was from this message that the issue of “lying” on the part of the union arose.

Some questioned our characterization of management’s concessionary proposals, particularly in regard to overtime pay, as “demands for pay-cuts.” Ironically, some of those very same people are now decrying the concessions that we ultimately agreed to on this very issue to be a “drastic cut in pay.”

Click for larger image.


On September 28, after a meeting wherein the union and the orchestra committee apprised the orchestra of the status of negotiations, the orchestra voted unanimously to give the negotiating team authorization to call a strike if and when they deemed it necessary. The Local 802 Executive Board also unanimously supported that vote after it was fully apprised of the situation.


Shortly after the Executive Board and the orchestra voted strike authorization, we received, and confirmed, reports that management was attempting to hire disaster-stricken musicians in Louisiana to work the Christmas show without telling them that they, in fact, were to be exploited as scabs (The New York Times later broke that story on October 22).

On October 9, at Local 802’s request, the American Federation of Musicians placed Radio City Entertainment on the AFM’s International Unfair List, informing union members of management’s concessionary demands and their efforts to procure a tape or engage a scab orchestra. Local 802 had also issued an advisory to that effect. The task at hand, however, was quite formidable to say the least. Obviously, both management and the union were in a race to leave “no stone unturned” when it came to a potential scab orchestra. Quite frankly, considering the vast displacement of New Orleans musicians in the wake of the hurricane disaster, locating these unwitting “replacement musicians” was like finding a needle in a haystack.

With the assistance of the AFM, and the wonderful leadership of the devastated New Orleans local, we were able to locate those musicians who had been approached by agents of Radio City management. To a person, when these musicians found out the truth about what they were being asked to do, they rejected the work offers across the board.

In addition, we received reports that inquiries were being made to students at local conservatories, and to musicians as far away as Utah and Arizona, in management’s desperate quest to find a scab orchestra. I personally met with Juilliard president, Joseph Polisi, to seek his support in helping us to thwart these efforts. Not only did Dr. Polisi issue an advisory to all Juilliard students and alums, he reached out to his counterparts at other music schools throughout the city. We are deeply appreciative of his efforts.


On October 18, management sought to bypass the union negotiating team by contacting our members directly with a false description of both their last proposal to the union and the union’s position, and urging them to rebel against their orchestra committee and their union. The union filed an Unfair Labor Practice Charge against Radio City Entertainment for this violation of the National Labor Relations Act.

Accompanying their letter to our members was a letter to the union containing the same inaccurate description of what they had proposed, which included reductions in compensation, and threatening us with a deadline of 48 hours to accept it or, once again, they would impose a more draconian and concessionary proposal, e.g., significant reductions in work and compensation. The union and orchestra committee rejected their ultimatum.

It is important to note that it was alleged that Local 802 “lied” at our rally outside Radio City Music Hall on October 26, when we told the public that management was seeking pay-cuts and concessions, and was threatening to use “canned” music. In fact, that is exactly what they were demanding.

In fact, two days before the rally, Radio City president Jay Marciano informed the New York Post that they had “multiple options, such as using tapes or replacement musicians.” He went on to say, “there are new synthesizers that can recreate orchestras,” a.k.a., the virtual orchestra machine.


Click for larger image.

On a cold October evening, hundreds of supporters joined local elected officials, union leaders and orchestra members to rally in support of the Radio City Orchestra. In addition to the many inspiring speeches and pledges of support, passers-by were also treated to the wonderful live music of the Radio City Orchestra brass section.

Also present was an obscenely ferocious blow-up balloon of a “wildcat” erected on top of the world famous Radio City marquee, intended to stare down labor’s signature “rat.”


On the evening of Friday, October 28, management and the union returned to the table. Cablevision C.E.O James Dolan attended this meeting.

After some initial introductory remarks, Mr. Dolan launched into a litany of accusations regarding Local 802’s alleged “lies.” He then made the following offer that, in his words, we “could not refuse.” In actuality, it was an offer designed to be refused: a 2-year rollover of the prior contract with wage increases of 3% and 4%. But this proposal contained an additional “essential condition”: a written statement to be made by Local 802 and published in The New York Times (at Local 802’s expense), stating that we had “lied and misled the public, press and patrons of Radio City Music Hall.”

Does appeasing a bully ever prevent the bully from pursuing his ultimate goal? History has repeatedly answered that question. The answer is, of course, no. And in this case, the union and the musicians were repeatedly threatened with that goal – the replacement of live music with “canned music.”

As has been the case throughout Local 802’s campaign to save live music, we were truly the “David” in a fight against a corporate “Goliath.” Our members do not need to pay dues to an organization that would lie down and give up on their behalf. We are now, and have long been committed to fighting on their behalf against such vicious attacks on their livelihood. They should expect nothing less from us and we should deliver nothing less.


On Wednesday, November 2, on the first evening of a public performance affected by the strike, the Local 802 Executive Board held an emergency meeting that lasted from 11:30 p.m. into the wee hours of the morning. As a result of those deliberations, we decided to take down the picket lines the following day and to inform management in writing that the musicians were prepared to report to work “unconditionally and immediately, with or without a contract.”

This decision was made for a number of reasons. First, Local 802 does not lightly take actions that would put other hard-working union members’ jobs in jeopardy.

Second, the musicians have a deep commitment to the audiences of New York. And, in the spirit of the season, we chose to return to work with or without a contract to ensure that paying audiences got what they came to hear and, in fact, paid for – a “live” show.

But, most importantly, the inordinate amount of pressure being brought to bear on Local 802, and this president in particular, to submit to Mr. Dolan’s unlawful and insidious demand that we publicly brand ourselves as liars, made clear that such a fateful decision had to be made by Local 802 and Local 802 alone. Inevitably, putting other workers onto the street while we grappled with that decision was unfair to them, and unacceptable to us.

Then, of course, when the orchestra showed up to work the following day, in front of worldwide press and media, they were locked out.

Click for larger image.


Much distress and even panic was expressed throughout our industry concerning Local 802’s decision to allow the show to go forward with “canned” music. I say “allowed” because we chose not to picket and, obviously, not to submit to Mr. Dolan’s demand.

For Local 802 to have taken the position that there were worse things than allowing taped music to go forward at Radio City, especially after having authored the first and only contractual bans on the virtual orchestra machine (which have since inspired others across the nation to successfully achieve such contractual prohibitions) should clearly demonstrate the irreparable harm we believed that signing and publishing such an obscene letter would have had to Local 802, its members and the entire labor movement.

When I first took office, and we began our aggressive fight to promote and protect the artistic integrity of live musical performance, I urged that we base our positions not on any perceived fear of failure, but rather on who we are and for what we stand. If we are to have any credibility, our word has to be our bond. It was ultimately for those reasons, and after a great deal of soul searching, that the Local 802 Executive Board decided that we could not and would not sign that letter. I am proud to report that the orchestra committee and the orchestra supported that decision.

Another reason for refusing to sign (and publish) the letter was that such a demand was unlawful under the National Labor Relations Act and an additional Unfair Labor Practice Charge was filed.

That, together with the unlawful conduct itself, was revealed to the press the following day and within hours management withdrew all their proposals, including the unlawful demand.


Click for larger image.

And then, something amazing happened. The lead stories throughout the press and media over a two-week period were focused on the “crisis” of canned music at Radio City Music Hall. Not that the city’s economy was in crisis, as was the case when we literally “shut down” Broadway in 2003.

Throughout this crisis, the media exclusively focused on the replacement of a live orchestra with recordings at the Music Hall.

Canned vs. Live? Is there a difference? Can audiences tell? Will they care? To those who say we demonstrated that management could put on the production without live music, I say, we already knew that. Who’s kidding whom? That is not exactly a bombshell of a revelation. And, frankly, we have quivered under that threat for far too long.

Like it or not, the time came for us to call the question. And, if not at the premier live entertainment showplace of the world, then where? We cannot just roll over and die, despite the whining of those who would have you believe that that would be “living to fight another day,” submitting to all sorts of onerous demands because we’re afraid that people won’t care. They do care!

Just take a look at a few, and I mean only a few, of the news reports we have reprinted on page 5 of this issue of Allegro, that championed the preference of live music over canned. And, judging from Radio City’s website and the full page New York Times ad they took out shortly after the contract was settled, virtually shouting the news that “The Orchestra’s Playing,” management knows it too.


On Wednesday, November 9, the morning after New York City’s general election, I received a phone call from Mayor Bloomberg. The Mayor asked me what he could do to help restore live music to Radio City Music Hall. Although the Mayor cannot “take sides” when attempting to intervene in any one of this city’s labor disputes, he invited the parties to Gracie Mansion and offered the mediation skills of Dr. Frank Macchiarola, former School’s Chancellor and president of St. Francis College. Dr. Macchiarola had also been called in to help resolve the 2003 Broadway musicians’ strike.

The Mayor’s intervention this time, however, was marked by significantly different circumstances. Unlike the Broadway strike, where the main issue was one of economic hardship to the city as a result of Broadway having shut down, the only issue at stake here was the widespread concern over the replacement of live music with “canned” at one of our city’s most beloved live entertainment venues.

Was the Mayor negotiating our contract? Absolutely not. Did the mediator use his skill and influence to help us secure a deal in spite of the fact that management seemed to be holding all the cards? Yes, he did.


In the early hours of Thursday, November 17, with tapes having run at Radio City for two weeks, the union and the orchestra committee emerged from Gracie Mansion with a long-term agreement that will guarantee live music at Radio City for the next five years. While the contract includes a modification to the way overtime is calculated (and scheduled), the Orchestra Pool’s right of first refusal to all work (which management had been seeking to eliminate) was maintained. And, although the overtime modifications resulted in a reduction of compensation previously earned, that was somewhat offset by wage and benefit increases of 17% over five years. The two most difficult concessions were, 1) the introduction of a “performance interview” procedure (similar to the audition procedure used for the Rockettes), starting after season two of the agreement; and, 2) a reduction in the minimum from 35 to 34 in the third year, 33 in the fourth year and 25 in the last year of the agreement. All reductions shall first be through voluntary attrition. If the agreed-upon minimum has not been met through voluntary attrition, then management may cut musicians to the minimum number and shall be required to pay a severance package to those musicians cut equal to 10 times the weekly base pay, plus 6 months health benefits coverage. The same severance package will be given to any musician who is not rehired as the result of a “performance interview.”


Throughout this historic struggle, the dedication, tenacity and courage of the Radio City orchestra committee sustained the orchestra and union through our darkest hours. Although we managed to save live music at Radio City Music Hall, it did not come without a price. There were some devastating concessions that, amongst other things, will now potentially provide management with a mechanism to attrit the pool of tenured musicians over time.

The most painful request I have ever had to make of any member of this union, was to ask that they vote in favor of a contract that could potentially eliminate their very own jobs in order to save live music. The unsung heroes of this fight are, without any doubt, the 35 members of the Radio City Orchestra who sacrificed self for the greater good. Every member of Local 802 owes them a debt of gratitude.

I would also like to take this opportunity to personally thank the valiant efforts of the union’s negotiating team: Orchestra Committee members Andy Rodgers and Tom Olcott (co-Chairs), John Babich, Bud Burridge, Mario DeCiutiis, Mark Johansen and George Wesner; Local 802 legal counsel Len Leibowitz; Ass’t. to the President Joe Delia and Principal Theatre Rep. Mary Donovan. Special thanks to 802 Senior Organizer Summer Smith.

In addition, Local 802 expresses its deep appreciation to the elected officials and labor leaders whose support was invaluable, especially City Councilmember Christine Quinn, NYS AFL-CIO President Denis Hughes and NYC CLC President Brian McLaughlin. And, of course, our Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, whose commitment to the arts and personal intervention made resolution possible.


I hope that this report has helped readers to understand the complexities of this extremely difficult situation. Given all that we were up against, I can honestly tell you that we, the union and the orchestra committee, gave the best we had at all times.

This was not an easy fight, nor a simple one. As we go forward in our fight to save live music we can expect more difficult challenges ahead. I believe that, while we had to swallow some painful concessions in this contract settlement because the realistic alternatives were worse, in the bigger picture, we put the issue of saving live music on the map in a way we hadn’t before.

Nobody ever suggested the fight to save live music would be easy. Did we suffer casualties in this battle? Surely, such is the nature of hard-fought struggles. On the other hand, did we do everything we could, against seemingly insurmountable odds, to keep the music live at one of the world’s most visible venues? You bet we did, and we are still alive to fight another day.