“We Have Only Just Begun”

Kaufman Teachers Win First Contract

Volume CIII, No. 12December, 2003

Mikael Elsila

Amidst laughter and tears, a twenty-month battle – which included a strike – ended on Nov. 2 with a victory for 120 teaching artists at the Kaufman Center.

After a final all-night bargaining session resulted in a deal, an overwhelming majority of teachers voted to ratify their first contract. With the contract approved, teaching artists ended their one-week strike.

“I supported the union drive because I think a union contract signifies respect for teaching artists,” said Cathy Aks, who has taught voice at the Kaufman Center for close to 20 years. “By acknowledging that teachers deserve health insurance, pensions, and regular, meaningful raises, the Center is committing itself to its future teachers as well.”


The Kaufman Center consists of the Lucy Moses School, Merkin Hall and the Special Music School (P.S. 859). All of the programs and schools are housed in one building, the Abraham Goodman House, at 129 West 67th Street.

The teachers’ picket line had sported two inflatable rats – one from Local 802, which was placed in front of the school, and one from the hotel workers’ union (Local 6) which was placed in front of Merkin Hall.

According to the tradition of the New York labor movement, the inflatable rats signify the presence of a union buster. The union estimates that the Kaufman Center spent over $750,000 – and possibly close to $1 million – on lawyers’ fees and other efforts to prevent teachers from winning a contract.

“I think that having a contract in a private music school like this is a very forward step,” said Mary Barto, a flute and chamber music teacher. “It is acknowledgement of the fact that the world is changing and we need to keep up with it. I feel very good about it. The bargaining committee was not deterred from their goal of finding positive and progressive solutions to faculty concerns.”

Sujin Park told Allegro that she helped fight for the union because, “I had tried to discuss certain issues with the management in the past and they would not respond – and I was thinking of quitting. Now maybe there is a future for this job.” Park teaches Suzuki cello at the school.


Teachers won union recognition more than a year ago, in November 2002. But even though negotiations took so long, gaining a contract in and of itself is a victory these days for the labor movement. Generally, fewer than 50 percent of union elections are won in the first place. And less than 33 percent of workers who attempt to unionize end up with an actual union contract.

Furthermore, the rate of union victories plummets when huge sums of money are spent on union-busting attorneys.

“We’ve got our foot in the door,” said clarinet instructor Morrie Sherry. “Our goal now is to educate the rest of the teachers to the benefits of having a union contract. During our campaign, we got to know the faculty and their concerns and we now are able to move forward.”

Violin teacher Miho Matsuno agrees. “We now have the building blocks for securing a better future at the Kaufman Center. Our unionizing efforts do not end here; we have only just begun in our pursuit for respect and dignity in our work,” Matsuno told Allegro.

There were simpler victories to the campaign as well. Theory and ear training teacher Jane Meltzer said, “Getting to know my colleagues was the best part.”

A teacher who wished to remain anonymous told Allegro that she supported the union effort because she “watched as many faculty members were horribly underpaid, discriminated against before and during the strike, and never offered a health or pension plan until the union began organizing.”

And piano teacher Jeananne Albee said, “I voted for the union because I feel everyone deserves health care and pensions and a voice in making the school better for our students.”

Local 802 has been helping teaching artists win union representation for the past seven years. Currently, 802 represents teachers at the New School’s Jazz Program, the New School’s Guitar Study Center, Music Outreach, the Early Ear, Midori and Friends, the Kaufman Center and, most recently, the Metropolitan Opera Guild. (Met Opera Guild teachers voted 23-1 in favor of being represented by 802 in a mail ballot that was counted on Nov. 3.)


Negotiations between 802 and the Kaufman Center had broken down to the point where faculty voted to strike, beginning Oct. 26.

After four days of striking, a tentative agreement was reached in the early morning of Oct. 30 with the help of a federal mediator.

The contract has a three-year term. Previously, the school was paying health benefits for only one faculty member. Under the terms of the contract, another 38 teachers will receive contributions from the school towards health insurance.

The school has never provided retirement benefits for any faculty members. But now, in the third year of the agreement, the school will pay between 2 and 5 percent into a 403(b) retirement plan for faculty teaching more than 10 hours per week.

The contract contains binding arbitration, raises in each year of the contract, job security, and – for the first time ever – payment for faculty meetings. The contract also mandates a faculty/staff lounge, with a computer and Internet access.

The teachers’ elected bargaining committee included Miho Matsuno (chair), Morrie Sherry (co-chair), as well as Catherine Aks, Mary Barto, Suzanne Gregoire, Tardo Hammer, Johanna Kopp, Jane Meltzer and Christina Morrissey. They were assisted by the Organizing Department and 802 counsel Leonard Leibowitz.

Organizing Director Joe Eisman and Senior Organizer Summer Smith contributed to this story.