The Union Makes Us Strong

In a sour economy, Local 802 is more importan than ever

Volume CIX, No. 9September, 2009

Economists are calling the last ten months the worst economic downturn since the great depression of the 1930’s.

In this setting Local 802 has been more important to professional musicians than ever before.

Without a union contract, you are at the mercy of your employer. Loss of benefits, wage cuts and layoffs are unilateral decisions of the employer – no discussion, no negotiation, no choice!

“Unions are great when times are good because you and your co-workers have the ability to make gains,” President Mary Landolfi told Allegro. “But when times are bad your union is essential – it may be the only thing protecting your job and your livelihood when you need it most.”

During the past several months of this economic crisis, Local 802 has been able to negotiate a host of new agreements that for the most part have protected musicians’ jobs and income. While several have included wage freezes, most have preserved jobs.

In a few cases, concessions were agreed to in exchange for employment guarantees.

It seems that no employer has been immune to the economic difficulties.

  • Well-endowed organizations like the Metropolitan Opera came to the union seeking wage cuts. Local 802 has insisted on examining the organization’s finances before agreeing to any contract changes. So far there have been no changes.

  • The New York City Ballet Orchestra completed negotiations for a new agreement in January. Wages were not cut and the agreement protected jobs and improved health benefits.

  • The New York City Opera was hit by both an abrupt change in artistic leadership as well as severe financial problems. That orchestra’s committee and the union were able to negotiate an agreement that has given the organization some breathing space, with a shorter season, while preserving jobs and benefits.

  • The Mostly Mozart Orchestra recently concluded negotiations that preserve wages and benefits while providing for improvements in the later years of the contract. (See In Brief.)

  • At the American Ballet Theatre, a new agreement puts off a scheduled wage increase for one year while preserving other conditions. (See In Brief.)

    Perhaps hardest hit have been some of the smaller freelance orchestras.

    “Smaller arts organizations have taken a severe hit,” said Financial Vice President and Concert Department Supervisor Jay Blumenthal. “If there is a bright spot, it’s the fact that we have maintained our wage scales. While some orchestras’ work has diminished, we believe that allowing wage cuts would not have resulted in a restoration of this work.”

  • In the club date field, jobs declined sharply at the end of 2008 and into 2009. While there were requests for relief from several employers, it was clear that wage cuts would not have changed the employment outlook.

    “We simply told them we could not agree to cuts,” said Recording Vice President Bill Dennison. “We do not believe it would have made any difference in the number of jobs. It would however, have meant less money in our members’ pockets.”

  • On Broadway employment dropped following the 2008 holiday season. January and February are always slow. However several shows closed unexpectedly and the number of new shows in the spring was modest. Despite the effects of the downturn, Local 802 successfully negotiated a media package similar to the Actors’ Equity package reached over a year ago that actually increased wages: 1 percent of base wages in March 2009, up to 1.5 percent in July 2009 and then to 2 percent in August 2010.

    Just as importantly, we were successful in extending the current contract and theatre minimums for an additional year that will hopefully put us in a far better negotiating environment. The contract now expires in 2011 and the minimums in 2014.

  • In the education field, except for one small employer, agreements have been renewed and previous agreed-upon wage increases retained.

    The one exception was the Children’s Orchestra Society, which was on the verge of insolvency. The organization opened its books to the union to demonstrate the need. Teachers agreed to concessions so long as the entire management and administrative staff accepted the same concessions and so long as wages and benefits bounced back in one year.

    A similar agreement is currently under discussion with an Off Broadway producer. Having seen the show’s financial records, actors and musicians are considering a concession that will keep the show running with a set date for wages to return to current levels.

  • Through this difficult period, the Local 802 Health Fund has been a stable source of vitally needed health benefit coverage for 802 members.

    For the fund’s fiscal year (September 2007 to September 2008) the fund’s net assets increased by over $1.4 million and the fund went from zero to seven months of reserves. Actuarial projections for the next two years show stable growth in funds assets despite projected increases in health care costs.

  • Additionally, because of the efforts of Local 802 and other unions, the New York State COBRA subsidy program has been renewed. This, along with the Federal COBRA subsidy program – part of the Obama administration’s economic recovery efforts – means that your entire COBRA bill could be paid for a limited period of time should you fall off the Local 802 health plan. (See Recording Vice-President’s Report.) “This is truly an important benefit available to members,” Health Fund Administrator Gloria McCormick told Allegro. “If you have fallen off the union health plan because of the decline in work, you should contact our office.”

  • Last but not least in terms of the union’s importance to its members during difficult times is the Local 802 Emergency Relief Fund. It also has taken a serious hit, largely because of the loss of return on its investments as well as increased needs. Earlier this summer Local 802 officers sent out a special appeal to members to help keep alive this vital source of help for members in financial need. The response was overwhelming. So far union members have contributed more than $10,000, mostly in small donations. It’s a tremendous message from our members that this union and the work it does are more important than ever.