When orchestras are under pressure

Financial Vice President's Report

Volume 119, No. 4April, 2019

Over the past decade, musicians in New York City have been deeply impacted by the collapse of several freelance orchestras. The once prolific and acclaimed Brooklyn Philharmonic (1954-2012) and the Long Island Philharmonic (1979-2016) are both extinct, as are the Gotham Chamber Opera, Dicapo Opera, Merrick Symphony, NY Grand Opera, NY Collegium and NY Revels. As musicians working under collective bargaining agreements, most of us have some understanding of the many internal and external forces placed on our orchestras, but what can we do to help our organizations navigate turbulent financial waters without giving up hard-won benefits and increases? Two orchestras in particular, the New York City Opera and the Westchester Philharmonic, have been struggling for many years. Musicians who depend on the income from these groups are rightfully concerned for their futures and their livelihoods.

New York City Opera

The musicians of the New York City Opera are currently in year four of a five-year contract. Michael Capasso (formerly of Dicapo Opera), struck a deal with Local 802 in an effort to resurrect the bankrupt business. The agreement was backloaded, with lower wages in the first few years to allow management to get NYCO back on its feet. They are now facing a situation in which management may be unable to fulfill its contractual obligation to meet the work guarantee for the rostered musicians. NYCO is an example of why we should always carefully consider any type of wage compromise. Meanwhile, the musicians – along with the union – still must decide how to proceed from here.

Westchester Philharmonic

The Westchester Philharmonic has posed a problem for musicians and the local for over a decade. Management has consistently paid musicians late, neglected to submit work dues, and has been expelled from the pension and health funds (currently they are reinstated to both funds). As of this writing:

  • Musicians haven’t been paid for an engagement that took place in October 2017
  • Over $6,000 is owed to Local 802 for work dues and late fees from all of 2018
  • Money is owed to the pension and health funds from two engagements in 2018.

While both situations are troubling, the organizations are still in business and employing musicians. Local 802 is doing everything within the limits of our CBAs and labor law to rectify the situation. However, permanent solutions must come from orchestra management alone.

When an orchestra repeatedly goes into arrears, the union has options, but it’s important to bear in mind the following:

  • Local 802 cannot permit musicians to play on spec, for free, or on credit.
  • The union does not pay musicians. It can only enforce the terms of the contract.
  • The actions of the local must be taken in close consultation with the orchestra committee.

How can the union help?

  • If an orchestra consistently goes into arrears or pays musicians late or not at all, we can incorporate specific language into the contract requiring that a bond covering all payments be secured before the next service. We have this language in the Single Engagement Classical Contract and require it with new employers. The language in the current Westchester CBA allows the orchestra to be up to two concerts in arrears. Because they are technically “only” one concert behind, the 2018 and 2019 seasons were permitted to proceed. However, this language will be reevaluated when the contract expires. In addition, the language specifies that the union be notified two weeks in advance of hiring for any services. Sufficient notification allows the union to communicate with the committee and make an informed decision on whether or not to allow hiring to proceed.
  • The entire sum can be paid upfront to Local 802’s in-house payroll company, Legit 802. Legit then becomes the employer of record. (Thus far, Westchester has declined to utilize Legit).
  • The union may file a grievance as soon as it becomes known that payments are late. Late payment penalties that may have been forgiven in the past will no longer be forgiven and will start accruing immediately.
  • Both the health and pension funds will be notified that payments are late and they may take appropriate legal action.
  • If the current contract language does not provide sufficient protections, that language will be renegotiated.

 What can you do?

  • Notify me using contact form below or contact someone on your orchestra committee if you haven’t received your paycheck within a reasonable time frame. (The employer has 10 business days to pay, followed by another 10-day grace period. After that, late fees start accruing.) Remember, the union does not know whether or not you have received your check unless you tell us.
  • Let your committee know how you feel. If the situation becomes untenable, we will reevaluate our goals and options.
  • Seek information from management and propose solutions. Is management doing everything in its power to rectify the situation? Are the management and the board doing all they can to sustain and nurture the organization? Are they pursuing grants, fundraising, and actively searching out new sources of revenue? Is management paying itself before the musicians and benefits are paid?
  • Look at the financials and 990s, available online at Committees should strive to stay in contact with the orchestra members and with the union. Lack of information creates unnecessary stress and anger, and leads to rumors. Transparency on the part of all parties is key to making smart decisions.
  • Ask management about succession plans. Many of our organizations are led by the creative energy and vision of a single individual. Once that individual moves on or dies, the organization becomes in jeopardy of disappearing or falling into the wrong hands. It is imperative that a successor plan is in place far in advance of that inevitability.
  • Consult with colleagues in other parts of our community. How did members of other orchestras deal with their last negotiations? How did they prepare, organize, and finally resolve similar problems? Who won and who lost? Are there parallels? What can be learned?

We can’t do management’s job for them, but we can maintain clear communication, stay connected to one another, and work together to find solutions.

Contract update

The Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live contract was approved by the Local 802 Executive Board on March 5. The new contract includes increases in all categories, and the orchestra will add a harp to the 2019 production.

Next Classical Musicians Forum

Please join us for the next Classical Musicians Forum on April 24, from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., in the Club Room. For more information, send me a message here.