As the outgoing president of Local 802 American Federation of Musicians takes the reins as president of the union’s international parent union, a new president is stepping up to steer the local through a period of change.

Renowned harpist Sara Cutler, who has been a member of Local 802 since 1978 and served on the Local 802 Executive Board, was appointed to be president of the local at the beginning of the month. Her predecessor Tino Gagliardi was elected AFM president.

In an interview with LaborPress, Cutler outlined her ambitious agenda for the next 18 months of her current term, which involves settling four major contracts and encouraging a new generation of musicians to take roles as devoted union activists. With the union still recovering from massive pandemic-induced changes to the industry in New York City, Cutler has said she plans to reinforce the union’s position in the city’s musical community.

“It’s an exciting opportunity to fix things at the union that don’t work and double down on the things that do,” she said.

Cutler has been a part of the union ever since she moved to New York at the beginning of her career, but it wasn’t until Gagliardi encouraged her to get more involved in the early 2000’s that she took on more leading roles. Cutler, a principal harpist with the New York City Ballet Orchestra and Orchestra of St. Luke’s, said she her activism was motivated by a desire to strengthen the union that has supported her career at every turn. She began serving on a governing board, and then on the executive board.

“I thought maybe it’s time to give back to the community that had supported me so well and allowed me to have a career doing something I really loved,” she said.

She took over the presidency at a turning point for the union. Many of its members lost their entire source of income during the pandemic when music venues shut down. They moved to other places, primarily in Europe, where orchestras stayed open longer and came back much quicker. On top of that many of the freelance organizations that employed musicians have shuttered.

Over the next eighteen months, Cutler is slated to oversee the renegotiation of three orchestra contracts at Lincoln Center and its contract with Broadway League, which extends to March. Wages will be a central focus of the negotiations.

“We want parity. We want raises. We want to be ahead of inflation,” Cutler said.

She added that the unions want to restore pay to pre-pandemic levels at many of the city’s nonprofit employers, where the union made concessions in order to keep them afloat over razor thin margins. At such organizations, 802 agreed to take pay cuts in almost every instance, with the assurance that when they could afford it, the pay rates would go back.

In addition to setting back the city’s live music industry, the pandemic also hastened a shift to technology usage that raises similar issues that have dogged the WGA and SAG-AFTRA negotiations.

Earlier this summer the union protested David Byrne’s Broadway musical “Here Lies Love” for its use of pre-recorded music, which Local 802 argued was a violation of a mandated contract requiring productions to employ a certain number of musicians (the show reached an agreement to include some musicians). Cutler is concerned that advances in sophisticated sound system technology could lead other producers down a similar path, potentially displacing musicians.

Her more overarching plan to address the drops in the union’s membership is focused on the new generation. With various older members gone from their leading roles in the union, many younger members have a lot to learn about what successful activism looks like. Cutler said that it’s her goal to train them on how to organize — especially at the level of the individual gig, where the union doesn’t always have the bandwidth to execute a full campaign.

“There’s a changeover happening now. We have a lot of younger members in whom we want to foster the burgeoning activism in,” Cutler said.


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