Management of the Westfield Symphony Orchestra (WSO) signed a recognition agreement with Local 802 on Nov. 20, responding to musicians’ overwhelming desire to be represented by the union. The agreement requires the symphony to negotiate with 802 over wages, hours, working conditions and other terms and conditions of employment.
The agreement came after a neutral third-party observer, the Rev. Dan Bottorff, counted signed union cards and reported that an overwhelming 43 of the 45 eligible musicians had chosen unionization.
The symphony’s office is in Westfield, N.J., which is in the jurisdiction of Local 151. The orchestra presents roughly five concerts per season in New Jersey, usually at the Union County Arts Center in Rahway and the Presbyterian Church in Westfield. However, roughly 90 percent of the musicians belong to Local 802 and they almost always rehearse in New York City. Local 151 President Nick Sabbatelli and 802 President Bill Moriarity decided to cooperate in the organizing efforts, allowing 802 to seek recognition and bargain with management.
The organizing effort was launched last summer, with a large meeting of orchestra members at the home of one of the Westfield musicians. 802 Director of Organizing Tim Dubnau and Senior Organizer Joe Eisman helped facilitate the meeting, but the musicians brought a definite agenda: to strengthen job security and protect several long-term Westfield musicians who were being demoted or were not being offered work for the 1999 season. After much discussion, the musicians decided that the best way to protect everyone was to gain recognition from WSO and enter into negotiations for a collective bargaining agreement.
An ad hoc committee was elected at the meeting, and everyone present helped devise a plan of action that would involve as many musicians as possible. “Before this year, I didn’t have much experience with organizing and had never been on a committee,” said committee member Don Batchelder. “When I found out that a number of orchestra members apparently were going to lose their jobs or be demoted, I knew that we had to do something in response – and that we had to act collectively, rather than individually.”
Several meetings followed, and the committee had conversations with dozens of musicians. They collected almost 100 union cards from people who have played with the orchestra over the last six or seven years. While some musicians expressed a desire to receive benefits for their work with the WSO, job security remained the principal issue. The key issue that united people and ignited the organizing efforts was management’s decision to leave some people’s jobs in jeopardy for the 1999 season.
Committee member Tony Cecere told Allegro, “I witnessed what I believed to be unfair demotions and firings of talented musicians by the late conductor Thomas Michalak when I was a member of the New Jersey Symphony from 1976 to 1980. Like Yogi Berra said, the situation with WSO was ‘déjà vu all over again!’ It was my belief then that orchestra players deserve to be judged by their peers, and I believe this is all the more relevant today.” Cecere pointed out that the labor movement’s adage that the employer is the best organizer “proved true in this case, as the WSO music director’s decisions galvanized the players into action.”
The successful campaign for recognition strengthens the entire symphonic community. “Getting a contract with WSO will benefit all classical musicians in the New York area,” 802 Vice-President Mary Landolfi told Allegro, “because it gives us another opportunity to work toward our long-term goal of a level playing field for all area orchestras.”
The next step for the WSO members will be to elect a negotiating committee and start the process of collective bargaining. Batchelder is optimistic about their prospects. He told Allegro, “The Westfield musicians have responded overwhelmingly in favor of our organizing efforts. Last week’s agreement by management to recognize 802 is just a step in the process.” He stressed the importance of how “the union has helped us at every step along the way.”
The organizing committee included Don Batchelder, Lisa Batchelder, Gary Capetandes, Anthony Cecere, Gerall Hieser, William Shadel, and Judy Witmer. Important contributions to the campaign were also made by attorney Robert Archer, orchestra member Dan Braden, in the form of financial investigation and analysis, and the Rev. Dan Bottorff, First Associate Minister for Pastoral Care of the United Methodist Church of Westfield, for giving his time to help conduct the card count.