School of American Ballet Musicians Win Contract

Volume C, No. 6June, 2000

Chris Seymour

The musicians who play for the School of American Ballet’s annual Spring Workshop have won a first contract that raises performance pay 44 percent over four years, hikes rehearsal pay 35 percent, increases pension two percentage points and institutes health benefit contributions. Orchestra members voted 13-1 on April 26 to ratify the contract.

“We were asking for respect,” said principal trumpet player Steve Bohall, a member of the committee that negotiated the contract. He told Allegro that he feels the musicians achieved that goal in the new agreement.

Responding to a complaint from a member, Local 802 won recognition from the school after organizing a credible threat to strike last year’s Spring Workshop. Up until that point, the school had been paying musicians $50 per performance and $50 for rehearsals that ran as long as three hours. The musicians had not received a raise in years, and were not paid benefits. In 2003, the final year of the contract, pay will be $108 per performance and $27 per hour for rehearsals, with a 7 percent pension and $20 health contribution. The contract also guarantees 18 percent premiums for doubling and principal players.

Although the increases are major, Local 802 New Organizing Director Tim Dubnau points out that the pay rates are still a long way from scale. “It takes several contracts to bring these low-paying jobs up,” he said. “That says to me that the sooner people call us about low-paying nonunion jobs, the better.”

Many orchestra members had pressed for a first-call or tenure list. Although the committee pushed hard for tenure, management “absolutely refused to discuss it,” Bohall said. In fact, the school explicitly threatened to replace the musicians with tape at the workshop, which showcases the school’s graduating dancers. “It was a real threat,” says bassist and committee member Peter Weitzner, noting the “bad precedent” set by New York City Ballet management during last year’s performances of Nutcracker. The committee decided that it was better to win improved wages and benefits than risk eliminating the job entirely by pressing for tenure.

“We didn’t have job security before the contract,” Weitzner said, “and there still is no tenure – but the pay is better, and there are benefits. These were very tough negotiations. Without the support of [recently retired] Vice-President Mary Landolfi and the Local 802 organizing staff, we never would have persevered and made these improvements.”