New York, NY — The press has raved about the show “Fiddler On The Roof In Yiddish”. “Strikes a deep emotional chord,” wrote the New York Times. “Wonderfully Vibrant…A Mitzvah,” from TimeOut. “No other Fiddler moved me as much as this one,” said the New York Post. “Audiences are hailing it as the most powerful Fiddler yet,” from Billboard. And many more.

But behind the scenes, the musicians who performed in this show had to fight for fair treatment. The first production, in 2018, originally offered the musicians a non-union contract. Local 802 stepped in and advocated for them. Drummer and percussionist Peter Saleh told another media outlet that besides wages and benefits, issues like the very cold temperature of the area that the musicians were forced to sit in – and which numbed their fingers and could potentially damage their instruments, were finally addressed, the latter by a union rep. Finally, the production wen union.

Fast forward to 2022, when the production was revived. The show, at New World Stages, opened on November 13 and runs through January 1. It stars Steven Skybell as Tevye and is directed by Joel Grey. This time the producers didn’t want to pay the musicians on a union contract anymore. Thanks to pressure from the musicians and from their union, AFM Local 802, and from fellow artists, musicians ultimately won their union contract again. LaborPress was able to sit down with a Local 802 representative to find out more.

LP: When was the original Do Not Work Order for “Fiddler On The Roof in Yiddish” announcement sent out? Local 802: Local 802 sent out the Do Not Work order on November 1, 2022, and management agreed to Local 802’s proposed agreement on November 2, just 18 hours after it was issued. This quick resolution shows the power of union solidarity.
LP: What types of musicians, and how many, are in the show?

Local 802: There are ten musicians in this show, including woodwinds, strings, brass, drums, and percussion.

LP: Were all workers/actors set to be non-union, and if so, are they union now?

Local 802: The production had a union contract covering the actors and other production workers, but the producers refused to sign a union contract covering musicians. However, the good news is that the producers ultimately agreed to sign a union contract with Local 802 covering the musicians as well. The solidarity of the actors and their willingness to support us was crucial to our success.

LP: What is in the current union contract? What specific benefits are in the contract and how do they compare with what the non-union musicians would have received?

Local 802: Musicians who have a union contract are not only paid fair wages but have protections regarding their employment, the right to their chair if the production moves to Broadway, standardized health & safety protocols, and recording and electronic media protections which guarantee employers cannot use musicians’ likeness and work without pay. A union agreement provides benefits such as health care and pension, as well as premium pay for musicians who double instruments or serve in the role of a band leader. Without a union contract, musicians are guaranteed none of these and could be fired at will.  
Technically, the musicians are covered under Local 802’s Commercial Off Broadway Area Standards, which are ratified every three years by the members of the Local 802 Off-Broadway Committee This ensures all musicians working in commercial venues across New York are entitled to the same wages, protections, and benefits. 
LP: How long did it take for the contract to be negotiated, and over what dates?

Local 802: Negotiations began in September without much progress, but once the Local 802 musicians made it clear they would not work for substandard pay and conditions, and once Local 802 sent out the Do Not Work order on November 1, a contract was signed within 24 hours. 

LaborPress also spoke to Saleh, who, as well as being a musician, is a shop steward, and he shared his thoughts with us. PS: My recent experience helping to organize the orchestra of the Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish Off-Broadway production has entirely inverted my understanding of how a union can, and maybe should operate in order to get the best results for its people – both for contractual terms as well as group morale. In the best sense, our musicians’ Local 802 is not some “other” or some impersonal organization that one can off-load responsibility to, the way that people talk about the DMV or even their representatives at different levels of government.
Local 802 is US.
It is the individuals in the orchestra who each, to a person, contributed uniquely in order to help produce concrete results. We were fortunate enough to have had a bit of experience from the previous production that largely – but not completely – inured us to the discomfort and uncertainty of the negotiation process. There were definite costs to holding on throughout, both emotionally and in terms of hours and days spent doing the actual organizing work. That work boils down to people – connecting to, writing to, and ultimately meeting with and speaking to people.

Ultimately, though, we got through it because we listened to each other, kept each other in check, and encouraged each other, and so held resolutely together. Our Local 802 representatives were invaluable to achieving a positive result with their wealth of experience in these situations, but without the orchestra’s cohesiveness, the directive may not necessarily have been as clear or as urgent and our union representation would not have had the information they needed to reach an equitable agreement that we currently benefit from.
An honestly unexpected, but powerful factor in the success of this effort to hold the pay scale standard, though, was the support of AEA. Knowing that the cast was in our corner was invaluable to us personally and as a highly influential factor, and I know that the musicians would and will return that support whenever it is asked for.  Just as much as the original orchestra who played this fantastic and timeless music together for 18 months deserves recognition for helping to protect the working standards of NYC musical theater musicians, so too are the many musicians who turned down the non-union offers that had been extended their way when the production was approaching replacement musicians due to stalled negotiations. These musicians declined the opportunity to work, often at great personal cost, including one musician whose visa status would have been greatly bolstered by the work.

They, whether actual union members or not, still acted in solidarity with the union’s principles. In response to their supportive stance, the members of the Fiddler orchestra in several cases – myself included – have contacted them to establish professional connections, express gratitude, and discuss some level of subbing involvement in the production [Subbing involves having an understudy or substitute. Musicians are in control of who subs for them, with the approval of the musical director]. We are treating this experience as an opportunity to forge stronger connections between NYC musicians. Because, of course, there will be the next time.


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