My name is Robert Jost and I am a music teacher at a school called the Early Ear.
We give music classes for infants, toddlers, and their accompanying parents and babysitters. I’ve been working this job for almost four years and I am 27 years old.
As with many jobs held by young people in New York City, there is a high turnover rate. When I started working here in winter 2001, the faculty was completely different than it is now. In fact, most of them left soon after I arrived. This turnover is especially significant in light of the union contract between the school and Local 802.
The former faculty had bargained for this contract, achieving a substantial raise for the pianists and various benefits for everybody, including paid sick and personal days, and health and pension benefits for those teaching or accompanying enough hours per week.
The contract also contained a grievance procedure, which afforded us due process, but also allowed our employer a degree of protection as well — he could discharge someone for just cause (like for chronic lateness or other serious problems).
All in all, it seemed to be a fair contract.
TO KEEP THE UNION, OR NOT
However, after the departure of the creators of the contract, it became difficult for us newcomers to understand what we now had. And for three years we had little contact with the union.
Then, about a month ago, we were told that our contract would expire in September. It was up to the teachers and pianists to decide whether we should keep the union or decertify. An election was scheduled for July 15 at the school.
Before the election, many of us spoke negatively about the union. One teacher felt it is impossible to run a small business with a union. Another said that the union had only its own interests in mind. I spoke a few times with union representatives, but then ignored many calls, and I was prepared to vote against the union on July 15.
Then, on the Sunday before the election, I found myself in an interesting conversation with Sandy Opatow, one of the former Early Ear teachers at the forefront of the union campaign from three years ago. I remembered her reputation as an excellent teacher and a caring person so I was not in such a rush to get her off the phone.
In our conversation, she pointed out many improvements that had come about due to the contract. The most important idea that I got from her was this: it is much easier to destroy something than it is to build it up again.
It had taken months of hard work to put this contract together, and the benefits we won served as a beacon for many other teachers who organized with Local 802 in the years following the signing of our agreement.
STILL SOME RESERVATIONS
But I still had reservations. I reminded Sandy that our current relationship with our boss was very friendly and that the faculty wanted him to have some control over his business. “This is your contract,” she replied. “If you want to give [your boss] more control, you can give it to him. The point is that this is an agreement for all of you.”
She continued on to talk about the general mission of the musicians’ union: to help musicians survive. She reminded me that most of us musicians don’t think enough about pensions and old age.
I realized that we don’t have to get rid of all the hard-earned benefits in our contract in order to work constructively with our employer in the future.
All of a sudden it seemed urgent to do what I could to preserve this contract. I decided to get on the phone and talk to my colleagues, and we met with representatives from the union and finally got to know these people whose calls I had been ignoring. I felt more and more comfortable with my decision.
In the end, we voted two to one to keep our union. I breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that we hadn’t thrown it away without giving it a fair chance. The exciting part lies ahead, as we plan our meetings to begin the negotiations. It will be the first time that this current faculty sits down together, and that alone is enough to make me believe that we made a good decision.
What is Decertification?
A decertification vote like the kind Robert Jost and his colleagues faced is extremely rare. Decertification elections happen when a worker — often prompted by the employer — feels the union no longer represents a majority of fellow workers. The worker may petition the National Labor Relations Board to hold another election where the workers have to vote whether to keep the union or not. The decertification vote at the Early Ear — which the union won — was one of only a handful that Local 802 has ever faced.