Three Challenges

Financial Vice President's Report

Volume 118, No. 11November, 2018

Tom Olcott

Tom Olcott is the financial vice president of Local 802, and the supervisor of the union’s concert department.

As we continue negotiating with the New York Pops, the ASO, St. Luke’s, the ACO, and others, both our employers and Local 802 are facing three main challenges

Most musicians in the concert field are aware that many of our agreements with employers are expiring right now. As I write, we are in active negotiations with the New York Pops, American Symphony Orchestra, Orchestra of St. Luke’s and American Composers Orchestra. Very tentative discussions have begun with the American Classical Orchestra and Riverside Symphony. Some orchestras have expressed interest in the AFM’s Integrated Media Agreement, which will require each one to engage with the AFM Symphonic Media Department. Local 802 is always present in such discussions and serves as a sort of mediator and translator as the employer navigates possibly unfamiliar terms and conditions. The IMA requires an independent ratification by orchestra members, which is administered by Local 802.

All of our orchestras are confronting three main challenges. We are well familiar with these, because they are the union’s challenges as well.

Challenge #1 is the all-too-familiar problem of money. Local 802 is able to review the fortunes of each orchestra through their public tax forms. But in most instances, the forms report a reality that is a few years old. For instance, here we are in 2018 and the most recent forms we see are for either 2015 or 2016.

The environment for arts donation is always challenging, both for the institutions seeking donation and for the donors themselves. The donor challenges have increased over the past year, exacerbated by national positions, policies and the recent changes to tax law.

As to positions, it is clear that President Trump has zero awareness or concern about the arts or about artists who are not racist or sexist or sycophants. The president ignores the Kennedy Center awards and advocates for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts (and Humanities as well). The man has apparently never been moved by art of any form.

Recent policy items are more concerning. New tax legislation makes it more difficult for musicians to deduct their reasonable expenses in pursuit of their profession. Perhaps even more importantly, new restrictions on charitable deductions for individuals may well seriously impair the incentive for wealthy donors to make contributions to their favorite performing arts organizations. All of this makes it more difficult for musicians to do their work and more difficult for employers to provide that work. The well-documented reality that robust art environments create jobs, income, local tax revenue, and – maybe more importantly – a stimulated and engaged populace, is apparently a dead issue for this president and his supporters. The White House’s positions make it increasingly difficult for our ensembles to thrive, thus deeply affecting our ability to do the work we love.

Challenge #2 is that the Trump administration’s NLRB and Department of Labor have essentially abandoned the defense of workers, eviscerating workers’ rights in favor of employer powers. This reversal of protections and the reduction of basic respect for workers’ interests harms everyone in the labor movement.

Challenge #3 is equally tough. Employers report to me that they seek a way to be able to compete with nonunion entities. From Local 802’s perspective, we constantly seek to bring more organizations into union contracts and to attract more members. We have a few successes in that area but clearly need more. There are a number of forces at work here, which require a lot more space and time to really investigate. Here are a few basic things to consider:

  1. People just entering the workforce are advised to be the “CEO of your own life.” All well and good, but rarely are there loud voices advising unified action – like joining a union – to improve your work life.
  2. The hype of the “gig economy” means that we are all supposed to be excited about working as independent contractors. This means, of course, that we have to pay our own taxes and benefits, and we can be fired at any time. Musicians, who effectively started the gig economy countless decades ago, have, through union organizing, sought to eliminate that model for a more equitable employer/employee model that contains fair wages, benefit and protections. We remain dedicated to that goal.
  3. Musicians, in particular, should challenge their own assumptions about how work and art (and compensation!) interact. Local 802 will always support an individual or group’s artistic integrity. Our mission is to have your hard work and artistry properly compensated and respected.

Local 802 bears in mind all of the above as we negotiate our contracts, no matter what the field. Along the way, we must always articulate our common goals. We need to think creatively about what effective unionism and mutual support will look like in the future. As union members, we must support each other while we seek to create an artistic and economic environment that enriches our livelihoods and the lives of others.