‘Why I Signed a Union Contract With Local 802’

Volume 118, No. 3March, 2018

Steven Behnke

Above, the Patriot Brass Ensemble. Musicians earn union wages and benefits thanks to a new contract signed by the bandleader Steven Behnke.

Horn player and Local 802 member Steven Behnke recently signed an agreement that provides union wages and benefits to his musicians in the Patriot Brass Ensemble (see story). Below, Behnke explains why he did it.

There is no more affordable way to bring benefits to your musicians than being a signatory of the union. In a world that is increasingly calling for more flexibility to survive as a performing arts organization, even being a part-time employer can be very difficult. We have all seen many larger and less nimble arts organizations fold over the past decade. Some of this has to do with the cost of providing healthcare. The good news is that many smaller ensembles like my organization have sprung up in their place. I can say from my family’s own experience of having two wonderful kids – and a spouse who is also a member of Local 802 – that the 802 healthcare plan is much better and way more affordable than anything we could get on our own. We are essentially sharing the cost with other employers that use the same musicians, a la carte. It is the best situation possible for bandleaders: it keeps our expenses predictable and manageable while our musicians receive high-quality healthcare.

Paying my musicians as employees (not independent contractors) and providing them with fair wages and benefits is investing in stability. It means less turnover. Our ensemble spends years developing relationships and learning the strengths and weaknesses of all our musicians. To lose them at the peak of their careers because they cannot afford to live in New York City is disastrous for our roster. Our organization hires marching bands, brass quintets, brass ensembles, drumlines, jazz combos and everything in between. Every single musician we hire has something indispensable to offer and we will never find an exact copy of that person. That is the nature of the business. We must invest so our most important assets – our musicians – stay with us in New York City.

Being a musician and bandleader gives me so much pride. I have played on so many non-union gigs that drive musicians out of our line of work. Even so, I am not going to sugarcoat it: paying musicians as employees and providing benefits through Local 802 is a lot more work for me – but I am already seeing the returns by attracting our best talent. As a musician, I am thrilled to play with the best. As a bandleader, I can tell that our clients love us.

Now here’s a plug for Local 802’s hidden gem – the union’s in-house payroll service called “Legit 802.” It is the best deal in payroll anywhere if you are working in New York City. I have done months of research into payroll and insurance and I found that using this one-stop shop for all your needs is unbeatable. This is especially true since musicians are commonly put into high-risk insurance pools for workers’ comp, a huge pain I have to deal with. You do not have to worry about any of this with Legit 802.

Knowing that we provide workers’ comp, disability insurance, healthcare, pension and a W-2 paycheck makes me so proud. Musicians should never feel like they are on their own. Not only does this help me provide a better life for our family but it helps bring a product to my clients that far exceeds their expectations, helping us to bring them undeniable value for their partnership with us. It is an upward spiral that I hope continues for a very long time.

I believe that the future of music must be run by musicians and that Local 802 can be our incubator. When bandleaders pool their resources together at Local 802, we can attract major-league talent on a minor-league scale. I really hope that musicians and bandleaders see the union for what it is: our champion. If we do not tell the union what we need, it cannot bring its resources to work for us. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain by reaching out to Local 802.

The union was incredibly fair throughout the entire process in negotiating our collective bargaining agreement. Taking the first step is easy: just contact the Organizing Department at (212) 245-4802 and say what you need. Even in the short term, the positive changes to our product are already clear. I think every bandleader should become a signatory of Local 802 today.

Steven Behnke is the executive director of the Patriot Brass Ensemble. If you are a member of Local 802 who leads your own band, and you want to provide union benefits for your musicians, call the Organizing Department at (212) 245-4802.