Why the NYC Ballet Orchestra Lockout Should Concern Us All

President's Report

Volume C, No. 1January, 2000

Bill Moriarity

The two-week work stoppage at the New York City Ballet has ended and The Nutcracker is once again being performed with a live orchestra. From all reports, the audience greeted the orchestra’s return with great warmth – and we were all gratified at the New York Times critic’s reaction to the orchestra’s performance.

That having been said, there is much in what occurred that should concern all Local 802 members – and probably musicians everywhere. A major American live-performance cultural venue has demonstrated that it can, and will, perform without live music. It may be that we should not have been surprised at this; after all, ballet companies the world over dance to recorded music. In fact, a theatre in this city dedicated to dance – the Joyce Theatre – was built with no orchestra pit.

However, promises had been made that no recorded performances of standard repertory would ever take place at the Ballet and the New York State Theatre, and many, including some committee members, believed Lincoln Center to be impervious to this threat. This was proven to be a mistaken assumption, and the performances that went on without the orchestra constitute a danger to live orchestral accompaniment in every field. Broadway has been holding this threat over our heads for the last several negotiations, and if those producers could pull it off it is difficult to imagine that opera would be far behind.

So at some point in this negotiating process – or in the relationship between the Ballet company and the union, as it developed leading up to negotiations – an error in judgment was made. In reconstructing the chronology, however, I find it difficult to clearly identify that point.

This particular rank-and-file committee has a long history of militancy in its dealings with management. Almost without exception, that militancy has been rewarded. Contracts have been consistently and exceptionally good; resolution of disputes had, time and again, been in the orchestra’s favor.

Probably in reaction to this, a frustrated Ballet board of directors hired a general manager who seems to have been given the mandate of bringing the orchestra “under control.” Suddenly, beginning about a year ago, grievances that had been resolvable were going to arbitration – six or more arbitrations were either in process or being scheduled when negotiations began – and communication between the parties was at an all-time low.

Once negotiations began the management team, while expressing a willingness to be flexible, consistently proposed and re-proposed an extremely restrictive eight-service week structure – a plan more restrictive than that in any other New York City orchestra. The union team, on the other hand, reacting as in the past but fueled by a more frustrated anger, may have misjudged the depth of the Ballet’s resolve, and responded with two very general counterproposals that were meant, in large part, to maintain much of the status quo. So on Nov. 23 the sides were very far apart and emotions were running high.

Both the union and the Ballet made last-minute proposals to avoid the work stoppage. Either side’s proposal would have worked but, in attempting to establish primacy at the table, neither side would accept the other’s proposal. And the tape machine started.

Only once in the process at that time did I feel a glimmer of hope that the worst might be avoided. Sometime after the orchestra withheld its services from the opening night gala but before the beginning of Nutcracker, management made a proposal that we talk and play and over a period of several months try to narrow our differences (it was assumed that differences over an attendance policy might not be resolvable, but that all else might get agreed to) and that on March 1, 2000, all outstanding issues be submitted to last-best-offer, final and binding arbitration.

This is commonly called “baseball arbitration” and restricts the arbitrator’s decision to one or the other parties’ final offer. The theory is that this procedure forces both sides to ultimately reach a reasonable position or risk having the arbitrator decide in the opponent’s favor. While both Local 802 Legal Counsel Leonard Leibowitz and I normally attempt to avoid the uncertainties of arbitration at all costs, we both thought that, in this exceptional case, it offered a dignified way out of an unresolvable situation.

The committee, on the advice of its legal counsel, rejected the proposal unanimously. I was greatly disappointed and, for the first time in my experience with outside legal counsel, thought that he had, in advising his client, not taken into account the full impact of this decision on the rest of the union. Whatever his reasons, it is my opinion that his unalterable opposition to this option did not serve us well. I hope that such a conflict never arises again, but it may be built into the system.

Finally, after too much recorded music, one committee member, aided by another, devised an attendance system based on section mimimums. Modified somewhat – with higher section minimum requirements and with the addition of an individual attendance requirement – this is what we ultimately agreed to.

In moving forward we must see the taped music threat for what it is and realize that traditional trade union tactics and strategies, by themselves, may not adequately serve our needs in all circumstances. The objective of a strike is to affect the employer in such a way as to prevent normal business from being conducted. If we can’t achieve that – if recorded accompaniment makes that option ineffective – other plans must be devised.

It seems to me that our fight should not be a negative one, against recorded music, but a positive one – for live performance. It is on this issue that we possess an obviously demonstrable and far stronger argument. All of us know that the live music experience is richer and more memorably satisfying in all ways. The challenge lies in finding ways to express and demonstrate this. Our first opportunity to do so will come with next year’s Radio City Music Hall and Madison Square Garden negotiations.

In the meantime, efforts must be made to find a way for Local 802 and Ballet management to productively coexist. Management seems to believe itself nearly invincible at this time. However, constant warfare serves no one and is certainly not the best way to create great art.