‘They Never Taught Us This in Theory Class…’

What happens in a contract negotiation?

Volume CVIII, No. 12December, 2008

Karen Fisher

Now that most of Local 802’s major freelance orchestra contracts have been settled, some of you may be curious about the process by which the terms of a collective bargaining agreement are negotiated. The following is a general overview of the method as practiced in the Concert Department at Local 802. Every negotiation is unique depending on the issues and personalities involved, but certain practices are common to all of the approximately 40 orchestras with which we maintain contracts.

Music schools don’t teach how to negotiate or read contracts, but you don’t have to be a lawyer to understand some basics. The musicians who serve on orchestra committees become quick studies when it comes to contract language, labor law and the unwritten rules of the game. 

There are 10 major freelance orchestras in New York City. These orchestras at one time were referred to as the OMNY (Orchestra Managers of New York) orchestras because all 10 orchestra managements negotiated as one entity. Ultimately that system did not work, as each orchestra had numerous distinct issues to address. We now negotiate separately with each orchestra. In past negotiations, the New York Pops set the economic standard for all the major freelance orchestras as well as the single engagement concert scale.

The major freelance orchestras are: The New York Pops, Brooklyn Philharmonic, Little Orchestra Society, Long Island Philharmonic, American Composers Orchestra, American Symphony Orchestra, Opera Orchestra of New York, Queens Symphony, Riverside Symphony and Bronx Arts Ensemble.


It isn’t easy to trade back and forth and have to accept the inevitable compromises that are a necessary part of the whole.
Peter Reit, principal French hornist of the Westchester Philharmonic


The first thing that happens when the freelance contract is about to expire is that a meeting of the Classical Musicians’ Forum is convened. Representatives from all the major freelance orchestras meet to discuss objectives for the next contract. We take the ideas from that meeting and formulate a survey to send to the musicians in every orchestra. The results of the survey are extremely important, as our proposals are based on the answers and comments provided by the musicians. Once all the data are collected, we meet again to finalize the proposals that we will present to management.

Next, we start meeting individually with each orchestra committee. Although the economic proposals remain consistent for all the major freelance orchestras, there are always distinct issues to be discussed depending on the concerns of each particular orchestra. These concerns can be anything that relates to conditions of employment. Some orchestras — such as the Brooklyn Philharmonic and the Long Island Philharmonic — need to focus on educational services; for others, it may be travel pay or recording. Depending on the size of the orchestra and the complexity of the issues, we may meet with the orchestra committee several times before our first meeting with management.

Both the union and management are free to choose whom they bring to the table. If management chooses to have legal representation, we bring legal counsel as well.

Usually the union side will consist of the union representatives, the orchestra committee and our attorney.

Management will generally bring their attorney, the CEO or president, often board members and sometimes the orchestra contractor. 

Only the lead negotiator or the designated representatives speak at any time while we are at the table unless it has been decided otherwise in caucus. (A caucus is when one side adjourns to another location for private discussion.)


The first meeting is usually relatively short. We distribute our written proposals and read through them aloud. Sometimes further explanation is necessary. For example, in the last round of negotiations we proposed that each orchestra establish a health benefits shortfall fund to help musicians maintain coverage if they fail to obtain the necessary contributions during a six-month period. (We achieved this in 11 contracts to date). This was a new proposal for most of the orchestras and required extra explanation and clarification. 

After we read through our proposals and field questions, the meeting will adjourn or management will caucus and come back with responses. It is rare for any decisions or agreements to be made at the first meeting.

An off the record gives each side an opportunity to test ideas without putting pressure on either party.
Daryl Goldberg, cellist with the New York Pops

If management has not responded to our proposals in the first meeting, the second meeting will start with their responses and the real nuts and bolts negotiations begin. As only designated representatives speak at the table, notes can be passed or a caucus can be called at any time if someone feels the need to make a point. Debate, deliberations and discussion among committee members happen in caucus, never during a face to face meeting with management. 

The meetings will continue over weeks or months until we have an agreement or until we reach impasse. (The ramifications of an impasse are the subject of another discussion.) Along the way, proposals will be dropped; compromises made; some items will be exchanged for gains in other areas. As meetings can become very dynamic and emotional, it is necessary, especially in a long negotiation, for each participant to listen carefully and keep good notes.

“I was surprised how slow the process was and how small the steps were — we inched our way baby step by baby step, meeting by meeting until we finally arrived at a first contract that each side could accept,” Peter Reit, principal French hornist of the Westchester Philharmonic, told me.

Reit added, “Hopefully the next contract will be a smoother ride, but it isn’t easy to trade back and forth and have to accept the inevitable compromises that are a necessary part of the whole. It’s a different game than it appears to the uninitiated — easy to criticize after it’s done when you weren’t part of the day in and day out procedure — but it is worth noting how hard everyone on the committee and in the union works to get it done, not to mention the many hours put in for each and every CBA that reaches completion every new cycle.”


Often the negotiation reaches a critical point where we may not be at impasse, but dialogue has come to a near standstill. At that stage, an “off the record” may be called. This is an informal meeting between a key person from management, the union rep, and at least one committee member. In the Concert Department, this is always done with the permission of the committee.

“An off the record gives each side an opportunity to test ideas without putting pressure on either party,” said Daryl Goldberg, cellist with the New York Pops and longtime committee chair. “In the case of the Pops, we have always found it to be a useful tool.”

Like a good story, a negotiation can twist and turn in unexpected ways. The process can be fascinating, boring, tiresome, exciting, interesting, infuriating — and everything else in between. At its best, it is a chance for both sides to develop and deepen their understanding of each other with the larger goal of maintaining a good working relationship throughout the term of the contract. It is also an opportunity for the participating musicians to have an inside look at management and to have a voice in determining the terms of their own contract. As challenging as the process can be, it is ultimately a satisfying exercise in serving the greater good. 

Karen Fisher is senior concert rep. Contact her at or (212) 245-4802, ext. 174.