LaborPress

NEW YORK, N.Y.— At Carnegie Hall on the evening of June 6, the ten-piece brass-and-percussion ensemble played the Allegro Maestoso from Handel’s “Water Music,” the “Ode to Joy” movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and J.S. Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.”

Violinist Laura Thompson with fellow union musicians protesting outside Carnegie Hall on June 6. Photos by Steve Wishnia

Except they weren’t inside the venerable concert hall. They were outside under a construction scaffold, protesting, they said, because the producer of the night’s concert, Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY), has effectively locked them out since they voted to join American Federation of Musicians Local 802. Violinist Laura Thompson carried a sign that read, “We Would Rather Be on Stage.”

“If this can happen at a place like Carnegie Hall to a union orchestra…” says violinist Tallie Brunfelt, cochair of the musicians’ bargaining committee.

DCINY, founded in 2009, typically rents out Carnegie Hall to put on seven to 10 concerts a year. Amateur choirs pay DCINY to produce and promote their performances, and the organization hires professional musicians to accompany them, says percussionist Andy Blanco, another bargaining committee member who has played DCINY concerts since 2010. It typically hires 50 to 80 musicians to form the orchestra for those concerts, from a pool of about 150 musicians in the bargaining unit.

The musicians voted overwhelmingly to join Local 802 in the summer of 2019, he told LaborPress, seeking job security and benefits such as health care and pensions. 

“Right now, we don’t have any job security at all,” Blanco says.

Negotiations for their first contract were put on hold when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of concerts in 2020. But since they resumed this year, DCINY management has “rejected almost everything we’ve proposed, and what we’re proposing is standard protections,” says Blanco.

And since DCINY resumed concerts in March, it has not hired any of the union musicians. For its performance of Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem in March, it used what it termed “guest artist” musicians. For the June 6 concert, of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, it used two professional pianists and student percussionists from a Brooklyn high school, according to Local 802.

“A big piece of why we unionized in the first place was to try to protect ourselves against retaliatory hiring,” says Brunfelt.

Local 802 President Tino Gagliardi calls the use of teenage musicians egregiously exploitative. “They’re trying to avoid the union by going by going to high-school students,” he told LaborPress. And if those students are accomplished enough to play the stage of Carnegie Hall, he adds, “they should be paid as professionals.” 

DCINY responds; rejects union demands

“DCINY is committed to negotiating an agreement with Local 802 of the AFM,” the organization responded in a statement to LaborPress. “To that end, DCINY believes that negotiations should properly occur between the parties at the bargaining table and not in the press.”

It said that like other arts organizations in the city, it “is on a path of recovery” after more than two years of pandemic closures, and “that has required patience and support towards returning our series to pre-pandemic levels.” 

It called “the current actions and statements by Local 802 contrary to our history and relationship with our musicians, as well as our current recovery efforts, and deeply troubling.” 

Local 802 President Tino Gagliardi joins the June 6 jam for workers rights outside Carnegie Hall.

Management is not bending in the negotiations, says Brunfelt. It does not want to contribute to the union’s health or pension funds. It says it understands the need for breaks, but does not want to include them in the contract. (At DCINY concerts, she says, musicians might do a four-hour dress rehearsal before a three-hour concert, but aren’t allowed to leave the hall in between.) 

Contributions to the health fund are particularly important, says Brunfelt, because that’s how freelance musicians get healthcare coverage — from accumulating small payments from multiple employers, rather than from a contract with one such as the New York Philharmonic or a long-running Broadway production.

She herself has been playing DCINY concerts for 10 years. Earlier in the day June 6, she says, she did a concert at the Juilliard School of Music. She also plays for Broadway and Radio City productions, and travels as far as Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and Akron, Ohio, to perform with local symphony orchestras. 

Management also won’t agree to keep hiring musicians from the pool of Local 802 members, says Blanco, or to put any recordings they make under standard AFM protections.

“This is functionally a lockout,” Harvey Mars, Local 802’s recording vice president. “They’re not using their bargaining unit.”

DCINY refused to schedule contract talks until this spring, claiming that they couldn’t negotiate because Carnegie Hall hadn’t reopened yet. They relented after the National Labor Relations Board upheld the union’s unfair-labor-practice complaint, says Mars.

The union has filed a second complaint because DCINY refused to turn over its list of which musicians it was offering gigs to, Mars says. Instead, it gave the union payroll information about the ones it had actually hired. But the list of musicians DCINY is using to hire from is essential information for the union, as it wants to ensure that the ones offered work are members of the bargaining unit.

DCINY’s proposals on hiring seem designed to erode the bargaining unit, Mars avers. One is for them to be able to hire 20 percent of musicians for a concert from outside it. A second proposal is they want “every musician on that hiring list to have an audition, even if they’ve been playing with DCINY for ten years.”

Management argued that it needed to do auditions because some of the musicians’ skills might have gotten rusty during the pandemic, Mars says. That would make it easy for them to ax union supporters, even if the auditions are technically blind, and is based on an utterly ludicrous argument, he responds. 

What do professional musicians do when they’re not working?

Like the classic joke goes, they “practice, practice.”

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