Three Irish Tenors Controversy Highlights Abuse of Underpaid Foreign Orchestras

"We will not allow tour managers to turn our orchestra pits into sweatshops"

Volume CI, No. 4April, 2001

Bill Dennison

A flood of protests following the use of a Polish orchestra to back up a performance of the Three Irish Tenors on Ellis Island has focused new attention on the abuse of low-cost foreign orchestras. The furor has already halted plans to use a Russian orchestra to back up an upcoming Andrea Bocelli tour, and forced Three Irish Tenors management to the bargaining table with Local 802 and the AFM for their future projects in the United States. As Allegro went to press, touring agreements for both were being hammered out between managements and the union.

“The use of an underpaid Polish backup orchestra, performing on Ellis Island as part of a program highlighting the immigrant experience in the United States, couldn’t be more ironic or more troubling,” 802 President Bill Moriarity told Allegro. “The real story here is that the abuse of immigrant workers – in this case, musicians – continues. In fact, in today’s global economy we can expect that it will get worse, unless we draw the line.

While Local 802 is “certainly not opposed to cultural exchange,” Moriarity said, “that’s not what this represents. This is greed, pure and simple. Replacing U.S. musicians with musicians from other parts of the world at a fraction of the scale wages that we have worked long and hard to achieve is criminal. We will not allow tour managers to turn our orchestra pits into sweatshops.”

The latest attempt by touring managements to undercut U.S. orchestras came to light in mid-February, when Local 802 learned that the Dutch production company, TV Matters, was planning a March 6 concert on Ellis Island featuring the Three Irish Tenors. The concert was to be taped for broadcast on WLIW, a PBS station, during its March pledge drive. Local 802 learned that TV Matters had priced out a budget for hiring a local orchestra but, upon hearing the cost estimate, decided to hire an orchestra elsewhere, and subsequently submitted a visa request for the Polish ensemble, Sinfonia Varsovia.

Local 802 immediately contacted the AFM, which has “consultation status” with the Immigration and Naturalization Service for musical artists seeking to enter the United States on work visas. Mark Heter, Director of the AFM’s Touring and Booking Department, reviews these visa applications and informs the INS of the union’s position. The basis for such visa requests must be cultural exchange based on the international renown and featured role of the artists or ensemble. This was clearly not the case for the Sinfonia Varsovia in its backup role with the Irish Tenors.

On Feb. 20, Heter met with the Local 802 Executive Board to formulate objections to the visa request. In a strongly-worded letter sent to the INS later that day, he pointed out that, despite the fact that this Polish orchestra had previously entered the U.S. for performances under its own name, in this case it was no more than “a low-cost backup ensemble.” This is not “cultural exchange,” Heter’s letter pointed out. “This particular request is a cynical attempt to procure musical services for a highly profitable promotion without having to pay the wages and fringe benefits American workers fought for decades to achieve and maintain.”

At the same time, Local 802 contacted the offices of Rep. Jerry Nadler and Senators Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer. Within days, Nadler’s office sent a strongly worded letter urging the INS to reject the visa request. His office followed up with several calls to the INS, in an effort to monitor the status of the visa application.

Meanwhile Local 802’s Recording Department immediately contacted TV Matters, the concert producers. In emails and faxes to their Amsterdam headquarters, the union demanded that they sign the PBS agreement and agree to pay area standard wages and benefits to whatever ensemble of musicians was engaged for the Ellis Island event.

As the date of the concert approached, neither the AFM nor Rep. Nadler’s office was able to find out from the INS whether visas had been issued. On March 5 and 6, the dates of the concert and recording, INS offices in New York and Vermont were closed because of winter storm warnings.

On the evening of March 6, Assistant Director David Lennon and Recording Department Supervisor Jay Schaffner boarded the ferry to Ellis Island, where they found the Sinfonia Varsovia in place and ready to perform. Their demand that management sign the PBS agreement was rejected.


The next day Moriarity and 802 staff began a series of efforts aimed at putting pressure on WLIW and the Three Irish Tenors management. Meetings were quickly set up with Irish labor and community organizations. The union contacted Rep. Joe Crowley, who represents a Queens district in Congress. He met with President Moriarity and, within days, arranged a meeting between the union and Three Irish Tenors management.

In the meantime 802 sent a letter to WLIW management making it clear that, unless the PBS agreement was signed, Local 802 would inform its members and friends about the circumstances surrounding this pledge-week concert. The Long Island Federation of Labor sent a similar letter. WLIW did not respond and on March 12 several hundred calls and emails went out informing 802 members and friends about that evening’s concert broadcast.

WLIW’s pledge lines were flooded with calls protesting the abuse of the Polish musicians. Many callers pointed out the hypocrisy of the station using programs that criticize the abuse of immigrant workers to boost its fundraising – at the same time as its concert presentation was hiring an underpaid Polish orchestra. WLIW contacted Local 802 the next day, expressing regret for what had happened but refusing to acknowledge any responsibility for the Ellis Island production on the grounds that the station was not the producer, only the presenter.

On March 14, representatives of entertainment industry unions and the INS met to discuss the issue of work visas, in a meeting organized by the AFL-CIO’s Department of Professional Employees. Mark Heter represented the AFM and a representative of Rep. Nadler’s office, Ellen Wallach, also took part. Heter and Wallach both raised the Three Irish Tenors concert, which became a major point of the discussion. The INS promised to review such visa requests more closely.

As a follow up to this controversy, and in an effort to head off future efforts by touring managements to undercut area srandards, Local 802 is asking the AFM to raise this as a special point of discussion at the next meeting of the Federation Internationale des Musiciens (FIM), the Paris-based international organization of musician unions.