The New York City Ballet Orchestra Lockout and Settlement


Volume C, No. 2February, 2000


To the Editor:

“Flexibility” has been the watchword of musicians employed by the New York City Ballet. That was true for the past 50 years, and true until the most recent collective bargaining agreement with the New York City Ballet. Indeed, such flexibility has been one of the main reasons the Ballet Orchestra has the finest musicians in the country, by making it possible for orchestra members to supplement the income earned as a member of the NYCB Orchestra.

The major issue for management – led by newly hired General Manager Anne Parsons and Artistic Director Peter Martins – in the recent negotiations was that of control, regardless of its effect on the quality of the orchestra (an orchestra Leonard Bernstein referred to as the greatest ballet orchestra in the world). Management made it clear from day one of the negotiations that there would be no contract unless there was an attendance requirement in place. It then became clear that, for the first time in 23 years, there was the possibility of a work stoppage.

When it appeared that the attendance requirement – a two-tier system with a grandfathering provision – was not acceptable to the committee, management suggested using a baseball-type arbitration to determine the provisions of the collective bargaining agreement. In baseball arbitration, the parties to a dispute (generally over the salary to be paid to a ball player for the coming year) present to the arbitrator the last and best offer each has made to the other side. Perhaps if the only issue was economic, baseball arbitration might be appropriate for one year as an alternative to a work stoppage. However, when a fundamental structural change is on the table, submitting it to an arbitrator whose only choice is to take the last offer of one of the competing parties can have devastating long-term effects.

It was disheartening that Local 802’s support amounted to little more than lip service. Unlike prior negotiations in which the bargaining parties were the same, the new management attorney tried to exclude the Committee’s attorney from off-the-record meetings, probably because he recognized that the prime responsibility of the Committee’s attorney was to the Orchestra and its Committee, and only secondarily to Local 802. In prior negotiations Local 802 and the Committee’s attorney were for the most part in sync with each other, resulting in favorable agreements and a strengthened Orchestra Committee and Orchestra.

Moreover, for the most part Local 802 did not present the musicians’ positions to the public and press. This is a fair conclusion, since the statement of Local 802’s President in last month’s Allegro expressed the opinion that the Committee’s attorney had not acted in the union’s best interest. It was because of recognition of this dichotomy, and a history of confrontations in years gone by, that the Orchestra Committee was authorized to retain its own attorney for negotiations and has done so since the mid 1980s, all with succcessful conclusions.

During the course of the work stoppage (actually, it was a “lockout”) Local 802 did little to help the orchestra to facilitate reasonable picketing in the area of the New York State Theatre. The New York City Opera picketed at Lincoln Center only a few years ago with substantial Local 802 support, as did the New York City Ballet Orchestra 23 years ago. The signs the union made available to picketers did not refer to the orchestra being “locked out,” as opposed to being on strike. Nor did 802 provide the level of personnel that would normally be available in connection with a strike by any of its constituent orchestras. Further, Local 802 marshaled little support from other unions, and especially from the other Lincoln Center ensembles.

A proposal was made by Local 802 – which was initially agreed to but later rejected by the Orchestra Committee – for a two-tier system that would purportedly only pertain to future members of the Orchestra. That was not so. There would also have been significant changes in the guarantees of the work week as well as introduction of a “service” concept (eight per week) and other work, such as media, rehearsals before and after the regular season, and tours would be used to offset our 26-week guarantee.

Local 802 assured the Committee, after off-the-record conversations with management, that certain economic goals would be included in the final package. Those economic goals were not met and Local 802 made no serious attempt to ensure that they be met, despite the Committee’s insistence.

Admittedly the Committee was divided, and Local 802 took advantage of this. That was not the case in prior negotiations, where from time to time the Committee would have disagreements but always came together with great success. Indeed, the Committee was unable to make a unanimous presentation in the recent negotiations, a situation the orchestra was abundantly aware of.

At the ratification meeting the Committee informed the orchestra that four issues remained to be settled. Local 802 had been talking, alone, with Anne Parsons without these issues. The orchestra was then told by the Committee that these issues were not part of the ratification vote. Local 802 told the orchestra that they would be resolved and the orchestra should “not worry about them.” These issues have not yet been resolved and against the wishes of the Committee and its attorney, who implored Local 802 not to sign the memorandum without resolution of those issues, Local 802 signed that memorandum. Local 802 felt that it was being harmed and that the threat by the Ballet of a continued “lockout” was real, and that it was therefore “forced” to sign the memorandum. Part of this memorandum was a strong clause that protected the musicians from any use of tapes if there was a dispute related to the use of those tapes. Now the orchestra no longer had the protection regarding new tapes of performances and rehearsals.

The company went to great lengths to try to undermine the Orchestra Committee (and presumably Local 802) during the course of the lockout. For example, in the presence of the media, some tearful young dancers would speak, as directed by management, to the media and attempt to harass some of the picketing Committee members. Management’s attorney and the general manager both approached and spoke to picketing orchestra members. Though not unlawful, this is highly unusual. It is interesting and important to note that, regardless of disputes over the years, there was a level of trust among the principals (the Ballet Company, the Orchestra and the Committee) that came to an end during this lockout.

Peter Martins had previously assured the Committee in the presence of others, including management personnel, that he would never use tapes to replace the orchestra during Nutcracker performances. We were mistaken in believing him.

The success of the New York City Ballet Committee in the past was due to overwhelming support of the elected Committee by orchestra members. That support permitted the Committee to successfully negotiate collective bargaining agreements for 23 years without a work stoppage. It must not now be dissipated.

The New York City Ballet Orchestra Committee

Jay Blumenthal, Jane Cochran, Laurance Fader (chair), Joyce Flissler, Gerhardt Koch

President Moriarity Responds:

I am surprised and concerned about the letter from the New York City Ballet Committee printed above. The letter surprises me because Local 802 and its members provided a considerable level of support to the Ballet orchestra and committee throughout their recent difficult negotiations with the Ballet. That support, in fact, went beyond what is normally done in these situations.

Staff members were assigned to all picket lines. The rally Local 802 organized on Dec. 3 drew several hundred people from the New York City and state labor movements. It included, as speakers, a member of the U.S. Congress, a New York State Assembly member, representatives from the New York City Council, other unions – both entertainment unions and crafts unions – and the Political Director of the New York City Central Labor Council. Also present were members of Broadway orchestras, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic, the latter of which was especially active in its support. We were able to obtain two of the labor movement’s 30-foot inflatable rats and Speaker of the City Council Peter Vallone’s office supplied us with ballet slippers for one of the rodents. The fact is that Local 802 provided the maximum level of strike support and personnel, as it has in the past, and in at least one instance – the New York Times advertisement – far beyond that commonly provided. Certainly this was more than “lip service.”

Management’s proposal for “baseball” arbitration, which I commented on in last month’s President’s Report, was deemed acceptable by both Lenny Leibowitz and myself only because the alternative was the performance of Nutcracker to taped music. At the time we rejected this proposal, we could hear the recorded music playing while the dancers rehearsed.

The press coverage was not to any of our liking, but that was not because Local 802 was negligent in this regard. Lenny Leibowitz, Judy West, Bill Dennison, the Committee Chair and I presented the union’s position in detail and at great length to representatives of both print and electronic media. Unfortunately, with a few notable exceptions, our contributions were largely excluded from the final stories. This was especially true of the most influential of the newspapers, the New York Times. Lenny Leibowitz spoke with the author of an especially devastating piece on the lockout for well over half an hour. He outlined our case clearly, but our viewpoint was completely left out of the article that appeared in the paper. Judy West was wildly misquoted in the New Yorker. It was obvious that the media, by and large, were not convinced that our position was a credible one.

My greatest concern, however, is with the Committee’s continuing efforts to portray orchestra issues and priorities as separate from – and sometimes opposed to – Local 802 priorities. The objective of all the elected officers of this union – from Mary Landolfi, Erwin Price and me to the members of the Executive and Trial boards – is to obtain the best terms and conditions possible for all musicians working under any particular agreement. That is, I think, also the goal of any committee.

Any action or rhetoric that works to separate a particular group of musicians from the rest of the union, or to pose that group’s interests as being apart from union interests in general, is a move in the direction of weakening us all. It is in each group’s interest, as it is in the union’s interest, to obtain the best possible agreement: both for the benefit of the particular group and to maintain or increase the union’s institutional strength.

The use of outside legal counsel could be viewed by some (including an employer) as a reflection of separation. And unless that counsel is extremely careful in his or her communications with management (or with the Committee), it is all too easy for the employer to try to take advantage of such a perceived split to drive the parties further apart. We are, after all, in strange territory here. The orchestra, orchestra committee or bargaining unit is, in almost all cases, not a formally-named party to the agreement, which is between the union (the local) and management. To take the most responsible position, counsel engaged by the orchestra must realize that the orchestra he or she represents may be just one element in a larger music scene, other segments of which will be affected by the agreement. On occasion this will mean that counsel must advise differently than if only one orchestra were involved. Being part of a union environment affects the decision-making process during negotiations in fundamental ways.

Finally, yes – I signed off on the orchestra-ratified, Executive Board-approved memorandum of agreement. There were several provisions in this document that the full negotiating team, including me, would have liked modified. I had hoped that, having obtained an attendance requirement, management would show some flexibility in these relatively minor matters. It was not to be.

However, it was clearly time for the lockout to end. In a three-way phone conversation with the company and its legal counsel, I listened as counsel advised management not to lift the lockout until the memorandum was signed. The General Manager then told me that the recorded music would continue until she received a signed memorandum of agreement. After that discussion had ended, I learned that several musicians – members of the rehearsal staff – had been prevented from entering the State Theatre building. Management was not bluffing, as they had not been throughout the two-week lockout. I signed and faxed the signature page to the employer. We needed to stop the tape and to have done anything else at that point would, I believe, have been irresponsible.

In moving forward now, all of us have to rise above the blame game and seriously review this difficult struggle, the circumstances that led up to it, and the decisions that were made in the heat of battle. What would we do differently? How will we deal with similar circumstances in the future? And how did our decisions affect the rest of the union?

The results and ramifications of this negotiation deserve a more comprehensive airing than can be accomplished in the pages of Allegro. I hope that the negotiating committee, other interested orchestra members and the legal counsels involved will all agree to as lengthy a discussion as is necessary in order for this orchestra and the union to gain from the experience.