Westfield Symphony Wins First Agreement

Volume CI, No. 2February, 2001

Don Batchelder

Musicians of the Westfield Orchestra entered the New Year working under a signed collective bargaining agreement – but it took tremendous determination and down-to-the-wire negotiating to get the agreement that is described in the following article, by committee member Don Batchelder, committed to writing and signed.

The orchestra had played the November subscription concert in good faith, based on reaching a verbal agreement – but Local 802 informed management that no further work would take place until they signed off on the agreement. The next scheduled performance was set for New Year’s Eve.

After stalling and making excuses, management tried to return to the bargaining table and unravel the agreement by bargaining regressively. The Concert Department informed them that the musicians’ vote to authorize the 802 Executive Board to call a strike was still in effect and would be exercised in the absence of a signed agreement. Drafted contract language went back and forth between the parties throughout the New Year’s weekend. When a signed contract appeared to be imminent, Local 802 instructed the musicians to play the rehearsal and await word regarding the status of the evening’s performance. As anticipated, a signed contract was received at union headquarters soon after the rehearsal, and the musicians went on to perform that evening.

On Oct. 6, barely 24 hours before its first subscription concert of the season, the Westfield Symphony reached an agreement with Local 802. Committee members Don Batchelder, Dan Braden, Tony Cecere, Gerall Hieser, Bill Shadel and Judy Witmer, together with the staff of the New Organizing Department, had worked for more than a year to achieve the three-year agreement, the first in the New Jersey orchestra’s 18-year history. Local 802 Legal Counsel Leonard Leibowitz steered the negotiations to a successful conclusion, despite repeated delays and at least one threat from management to fold the orchestra.

The musicians had decided to organize in the summer of 1999 when it became clear that the new music director, David Wroe, did not intend to rehire some musicians who had been in the orchestra for years. Local 802 became involved with Westfield’s organizing effort after receiving permission from Nick Sabbatelli, President of Musicians’ Association Local 151 in Elizabeth. Westfield’s musicians felt it made sense for 802 to conduct the organizing drive because most of them are 802 members, and most rehearsals take place in New York.

The campaign began with getting management to recognize 802 as the musicians’ bargaining agent. Further steps included nominating and electing a committee, creating a roster from attendance records, drafting a proposed contract with input from a survey of orchestra members, and negotiating with management. “It was a classic organizing success,” says Organizer Joe Eisman. “The committee was actively involved in every step of the process, and the orchestra membership really stayed unified.”

“Job security was definitely the number one issue,” says cellist and committee member Gerall Hieser. “We felt we needed to establish a fair procedure if somebody was going to be fired.” The new agreement creates a roster of 56 tenured players, who must play 60 percent of subscription concerts over two years to maintain their status. It also provides for a Peer Review Committee, consisting of the Music Director and five musicians. If management chooses to dismiss a tenured musician for artistic reasons, a multi-step process must be followed. Finally, the musician can appeal to the Peer Review Committee, whose decision is binding.

Although Westfield had been paying 802 scale wages, it was a 1099 job with no pension or health payments. The agreement also needed to address principal pay, doubling and cartage, which were provided irregularly, if at all. The three-year agreement includes pension contributions of 3 percent in the second and 6 percent in the third year; principal pay for all principal positions, rising from 6 percent in the first year to 12 percent and then 20 percent; and doubling of 6 percent, 12 percent and 20 percent in successive years for all traditional doubles, except percussion.

Musicians will be paid on a W-2 basis as of September 2001, receiving unemployment insurance and FICA contributions. “The move to W-2 status represents a significant cost to the orchestra, and a significant long-term benefit for the musicians,” says committee member and accountant Dan Braden, whose financial expertise was an asset to the negotiating team.

“When I saw management’s first offer, back in August, I wasn’t sure we were going to get an agreement at all,” recalls principal horn and committee chair Tony Cecere. Management’s early positions were difficult for the musicians to take seriously. There was no principal pay, doubling, pension or W-2 status. Their version of job security was to have the conductor (“with input from principals”) pick a 20-player roster, from which anyone could be fired at any time. Student musicians could replace roster players. Roster members would be required to play 80 percent of each season’s subscription concerts, or lose their status.

Management soon backed away from some of these ideas. However, the two sides remained far apart on the essential issues of money and job security. In late September the orchestra voted overwhelmingly in favor of authorizing the 802 Executive Board to call a strike if an agreement was not reached. With a strike imminent, there was finally progress on the two key issues, and, on the Friday afternoon before a Saturday evening concert, the Westfield Symphony had verbally reached an agreement on all outstanding issues.

“At no time did I feel any loss of unity or determination on the part of the Westfield Symphony musicians’ negotiating committee,” says committee member and principal clarinetist Bill Shadel. A veteran of several negotiations and a member of the Local 16 Executive Board, he credits both Leibowitz and the New Organizing Department for providing essential leadership. “We were very fortunate to have the support of Local 802.”