Under the Big Top, A Union Band

Big Apple Circus Wins 802 Contract

Volume CIV, No. 3March, 2004

Summer Smith

Send in the clowns! And send in the union musicians!

The Big Apple Circus musicians ratified their first Local 802 contract on Feb. 4, the culmination of an organizing effort that began last November.

The circus hires eight musicians, including a conductor who also plays lead trumpet. The musicians presented management with an open petition for representation by 802 in December, and the circus voluntarily recognized the union.

“We have found that public petitions almost always succeed in gaining recognition, and usually result in the strongest first contracts,” said 802 Organizing Director Joe Eisman.

The Big Apple Circus first raised its tent in Battery Park in 1977. Since then, it has become an annual New York City tradition, and has made Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park its winter home. The rest of the year, the circus takes its show to Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and several cities on the East Coast. All together, the musicians perform about 340 shows a year.

“Working with circus performers — and animals in particular — can be very challenging since the show is different every time,” conductor and lead trumpeter Rob Slowik told Allegro. “This band is an incredible group of musicians who never miss a cue. The signing of this contract will ensure that we always have a great band at the Big Apple Circus.”

The musicians’ main issues were health insurance and pension. Their contract includes a retroactive health benefits payment of $400 in order to guarantee each musician a minimum of Plan B coverage starting April 1. Then, starting on Feb. 14, musicians began earning $5 per performance in health benefits, moving to $5.50 in August, and increasing to $7 in August 2005, enough for each musician to reach Plan A.

Trumpeter Johnny Hodges said that “having health insurance and the protections of a union contract is such a comfort. I really enjoy this job. I love playing for the children who come to the circus; and knowing that I have these benefits in place makes the job that much sweeter.”

At first, the circus refused to make pension contributions on behalf of the musicians on the grounds that no employee of the organization, including those in senior management positions, receives any retirement benefits. Under the terms of the agreement, pension contributions of 5 percent of gross wages will begin in August 2006.

“That was the most difficult part of the negotiations, and for most of us, pension was the most important issue,” observed woodwinds player Kristy Norter. “Workers deserve to have some security in retirement. We’re all looking forward to playing for the circus for years to come, knowing that we’re building a decent pension.”

The five-year contract also provides doubling premiums for the first time, and wage increases in each year of the contract except for 2006, when pension contributions begin. Additionally, the musicians will now be paid for recording work. (In the past, the circus had used recordings of the band for television and radio commercials without compensation to the players.)

Job security was one of the musicians’ strongest achievements in the contract. All musicians currently employed by the circus, and any new musicians who pass probation, will be on a primary hiring list. The musicians on the primary hiring list have the right to play for the Big Apple Circus in any year their instrument is needed.

“I am completely stoked about the whole contract!” drummer Sam Wiley told Allegro. “I have not felt this kind of job security since I played the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.” (Ringling Bros. is an AFM engagement.)

The agreement was reached in just three negotiating sessions, a welcome change of pace for 802’s Organizing Department, which in recent months has faced employers eager to drag out negotiations indefinitely in order to avoid unionization, at the expense of their musicians.

“I’m equally happy to see that the union would fight for my rights, and that my employers were extremely reasonable and understanding,” said violinist Kaoru Ishibashi. “This has been an enriching and educational experience for me, and I hope that others may find strength and encouragement from our success.”

Among its other stops, the circus will be in Bridgewater, N.J. from March 6 to March 28, at the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University from May 15 to May 23, and at Cunningham Park in Queens from May 28 to June 8.

Recording Vice President Bill Dennison and Senior Organizer Summer Smith assisted the musicians, along with 802 legal counsel Leonard Leibowitz.