Twenty musicians stood outside a rehearsal space on a busy sidewalk at 305 Seventh Avenue on Sept. 20, in solidarity with a colleague who had been unfairly taken off the A.R. Rahman Concert Tour. They got almost immediate results. The employer placed the musician back on half of the job – and agreed to pay her full pension and health benefits and a 33 percent premium to compensate for the mistake.
A.R. Rahman is an Indian film composer and star of Indian musical cinema who enjoys worldwide popularity. He was on a three-week tour of the United States and Canada produced by Variety Entertainment Inc. of New Jersey, which hired 24 musicians to accompany a troupe of over 45 performers for concerts in New York, Toronto, Los Angeles and San Francisco. According to Variety, more than 20,000 tickets were sold for the New York performance at the Nassau Coliseum.
The tour was highly unorganized from the outset. The producers changed rehearsal dates with little notice, and added two and even three hours to rehearsal times with no increase in pay. Some of the problems were caused by Variety’s use of several different contractors to hire and coordinate the tour.
One of the contractors hired Alisa Regelin, a violinist, who recommended several other musicians who were also hired for the tour. When the contracting switched hands, the new contractor claimed that the musicians hired by the first contractor hadn’t actually been hired. Instead, he insisted that they were merely “possible” people for the job. When he failed to reach Regelin (even though she has a working cellular phone with voice mail) and at least one other musician, he called the next person on the list and found replacements for people he couldn’t reach.
The musicians strongly dispute the new contractor’s claim that the first contractor had not hired them. “I was definitely hired for the job,” Regelin told Allegro. “They gave me dates and times, and they even asked for my dress size so they could make me a costume.” Other musicians hired by the first contractor confirmed this. “The first contractor hired us,” David Romano, a bassist on the job, told Allegro. “In fact, it was especially unfair that they tried to take Alisa off the tour because she helped them by recommending several of us for the job.”
The musicians were initially hired nonunion, and Regelin had nothing in writing to substantiate her claim. Eventually one contractor contacted Mark Heter, the AFM’s Director of Touring, Theatre and Booking Agent Agreements, and started negotiating a special letter of agreement for the tour. The AFM negotiated pension and health contributions, a per-diem, overtime and extra service provisions, as well as recording protections. However, since there was no hiring list, Regelin couldn’t rely on the union contract to get her job back.
She contacted 802’s New Organizing Department to see if anything else could be done. After two days of intense negotiations with the producers, the local reached a tentative deal that would have placed her on half of the tour, but with a 33 percent premium and full benefits to make up for work she turned down after the first contractor hired her for the tour. However, at the last minute the producers backed out of the deal and refused to hire her for any of the concerts.
Local 802 organized a job action the next day, immediately before the first rehearsal, and not a single musician crossed the line. 802 Financial Vice-President Tina Hafemeister, Supervisor of Concerts David Lennon and Mark Heter of the AFM came out to lend their support, as well as staff from the New Organizing Department. The producers were forced to sign the agreement 802 had negotiated a day earlier.
“It was very gratifying to see the strong union presence at the rehearsal,” said Mike Kuennen, a bassist on the job. “The fact that union staff and even an officer showed up for a group of musicians who typically do not have the top jobs in the city demonstrated that the union is committed to fighting for all of us.”
The union is committed to fighting for all its members, said 802 Director of New Organizing Tim Dubnau, but he cautioned that it is difficult to negotiate strong agreements if members fail to contact the union as soon as they are called for a gig. “When we find out about a job at the last minute, especially after all the musicians have been hired and the pay has already been set, it is often hard to add benefits and job security,” he told Allegro. “We might have been able to avoid the mistakes made during the hiring process for the A.R. Rahman concerts if we had been called earlier.”
However, in the end the musicians were satisfied with the contract and they pulled together to protect the job of their fellow musician. “We would not have received any pension or health benefits for this tour if there were no union contract, and they could have continued to lengthen our rehearsal times without paying us,” Regelin said. “But sometimes job security is the most important benefit of unionization. Without my union I couldn’t have enjoyed the other benefits, because I wouldn’t even have been on the job.”