Teaching Artists Seek Union Benefits at Elaine Kaufman Cultural Center

Seeking A Voice At Work

Volume CII, No. 6June, 2002

Summer Smith

Seeking a voice at work to address a lack of health insurance, pension, seniority and other concerns, teaching artists at the Elaine Kaufman Cultural Center (EKCC) have demanded the right to be represented by Local 802, marking the sixth time a group of teaching artists has approached the union since 802 began organizing in the education field five years ago.

The EKCC, a private, not-for-profit entity, has a faculty of more than 120 teaching artists – mostly instrumentalists, but also including Dalcroze, yoga, Alexander Technique, dance and theatre teachers. In the summer of 2001, a committee formed and contacted 802 Director of Organizing Joe Eisman seeking assistance from Local 802 in winning union representation. Over the next eight months, the committee grew steadily, and met with almost every instructor on the faculty.

Dalcroze, recorder and piano teacher Johanna Kopp says that meeting her fellow faculty was one of the best parts of the organizing effort. “At first, I was a little nervous to call up someone I’d never met and invite them to meet over coffee to talk about a union at the Center. But the more we talked to each other, the more we realized we shared similar goals at the EKCC.” More than two-thirds of the faculty signed union cards indicating their support for the organizing effort.

On March 14 Eisman notified the Center’s executive director, Lydia Kontos, that an overwhelming majority of the faculty had signed union cards seeking representation from Local 802, and offered to agree to a neutral third-party card count for confirmation. (This process, called a card check, is common policy for state workers in New York and is how teaching artists won representation by 802 at The Early Ear music school.) The local also filed for an election with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) as a contingency plan.

Management denied a card check and refused the NLRB’s proposal of an informal conference to resolve issues between the parties in a non-adversarial fashion. The EKCC instead opted for a formal hearing at the NLRB, then postponed the hearing by more than a week. Ms. Kontos released a memo to the faculty, dated March 17, promising “to preserve the right of every faculty member to make this serious decision in a secret ballot election.”

It became clear at the hearing, however, that Kontos and her lawyers (of Holland & Knight, a law firm that, according to its web site, represents employers in “responding to union organization attempts” and is one of the largest firms in the U.S.) had no intention of allowing all faculty the right to an election.

Management called for a change to the unit that would disenfranchise nearly half the Lucy Moses School faculty. They contended that faculty teaching less than four hours per week at the Lucy Moses School should not be eligible to vote, and that the Center’s faculty should be divided into two units: one for the Lucy Moses School and one for the Special Music School of America (SMSA).

The two schools are divisions of the EKCC, which also comprises Merkin Concert Hall; all three divisions are located in the Abraham Goodman House at 129 West 67th Street in Manhattan. Of the 28 music faculty who teach at the SMSA, a public school that offers music instruction through a program solely funded by the EKCC, all but seven teach at the Lucy Moses School as well. Music classes at the SMSA and at the Lucy Moses School take place in the same rooms at the Center, and all work done at both schools is paid on one check from the EKCC. At the hearing, 802 maintained that one unit, comprised of all regular faculty at the EKCC, is appropriate and meets all “community of interest” criteria for a union election.

In attempting to justify dividing the faculty, the employer tried to demonstrate that the high standards of teacher qualifications and student expectations at the SMSA do not apply to the Lucy Moses School. Members of the faculty were present virtually continuously throughout the hearing, and were shocked to hear the employer devalue their work.

“Ms. Kontos and [SMSA Music Director and Lucy Moses School Associate Director of Education Programs] Mr. Lakirovich really tried to de-professionalize the teachers,” noted Cathy Aks, who has been teaching voice at the EKCC for nearly 20 years. “They testified that evaluations, which we teachers take very seriously, are meaningless at Lucy Moses, and that there are no real standards or goals for student achievement.

“This testimony opened my eyes to how little the teachers – or the students, for that matter – are valued by the administration. Our experience, talents, professionalism, sense of responsibilities to our duties and our students – this counts for very little in their eyes. I wish I could believe that this is all just stuff to say to bolster their position at the hearing. Sadly, I’ve come to believe that they really do mean it; at the Center, the teachers are not viewed or treated as the professionals we are.”

For Miho Matsuno, a violinist and 802 member who has taught at the Center for over a decade, management’s unwillingness to acknowledge the experience and professionalism she brings to her job was a main impetus for joining the organizing committee. “The major issue is clear: we need and deserve a voice at work,” Matsuno said.

State and local politicians have supported the teaching artists’ efforts to make their voices heard. State Senator Eric Schneiderman, State Assembly member Scott Stringer and City Council member Gale Brewer have been urging Kontos and members of the EKCC Board of Trustees to recognize the union and begin negotiations. The administration, however, has refused to respond to their appeals and has continued to bombard the faculty with anti-union messages, sending out five anti-union letters since March 17, and using time at a faculty meeting to try to scare teachers out of unionizing. (As Allegro went to press, management had scheduled two more meetings at which they intend to dissuade faculty from unionizing.)

Piano teacher Gena Raps was particularly offended by the latter tactic. “It was inappropriate for Ms. Kontos to use the April faculty meeting to air regrets about faculty organizing,” Raps said. She pointed out that “meetings are on our personal time since there is no compensation for our time at these meetings. Ms. Kontos used this occasion to warn us that a union contract would be binding for all faculty members. She gave an ‘ice cream clause’ example: if the union negotiates that faculty must eat an ice cream cone before teaching a class, then everyone, whether or not they are in the union, and even if they are on a diet, must eat an ice cream cone. I hope Ms. Kontos is aware that the faculty has serious concerns such as health insurance, retirement, and quality of life issues unrelated to eating ice cream cones!”

“Teaching artists need and deserve health insurance and pension, just like other professionals,” said Morrie Sherry, a clarinetist who has been teaching at the Center for 11 years. Sherry also does freelance concert work and would like to see her work at the EKCC pay into her union benefit funds. “So many of my colleagues both teach and play professionally. We need our teaching work to be covered by union agreements too. Every employer of a freelance artist should contribute to the costs associated with that artist’s health insurance and retirement.”

Local 802 President Bill Moriarity emphasizes the need to continue winning benefits for teaching artists in New York. “Many of our members teach their craft. Union representation has, until recently, been almost non-existent in this field, so there is a lot of exploitation,” he told Allegro. “Union contracts with the New School Jazz Studies and Guitar Studies programs, and with other educational organizations, were the first steps to addressing this issue. When teaching artists call us, we have a responsibility as a union to assist them in improving their jobs.”

“I am proud of the work our union does,” says Peggy Wiltrout, a member of the oboe faculty at Lucy Moses for seven years. She joined the organizing committee to help bring the benefits of a union contract to her colleagues at the EKCC. “As this campaign has progressed, a lot of teachers have started to realize that conditions they have accepted in the past can be improved. It is very empowering. Teachers are feeling more free to ask questions, and to speak of situations that they would like to see changed.”

Richard Harper, a piano teacher in the New School Jazz Studies Program, recalls that the faculty there faced the same struggle that EKCC faculty are experiencing now – yet eventually won a contract that speaks to many of the issues that teaching artists at the EKCC want to address.

“I would urge all the teachers at the Elaine Kaufman Cultural Center, as well as other music schools, as strongly as I can, to organize,” said Harper. “You owe it to yourselves and the people you are teaching to secure fair compensation for what you do. If you don’t stand up for your dignity, how can you pass it on to someone else?”

The NLRB is gathering briefs from Local 802 and the EKCC, and will make a ruling as to which faculty are eligible to vote in a union election. 802 continues to build community support for the faculty’s union, so that any election and negotiations take place without further unnecessary delays, and in an atmosphere free from the intimidation tactics management has used so far.

The entire 802 Organizing Department is working on this campaign, along with 802 attorney John Byington of Meyer, Suozzi, English & Klein.

(For updates on the campaign at the Elaine Kaufman Cultural Center, and to read the complete letters of the Teachers Organizing Committee, the anti-union letters from the administration, and the support letters from elected officials, please click here.)