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Outgoing Local 802 President Reflects On the Pandemic’s Impact on New York’s Musicians

New York, NY – Adam Krauthamer is the outgoing president of the American Federation of Musicians Local 802, the largest local union of professional musicians in the world. Local 802’s 6,500 members represent musicians throughout New York City and Westchester. They play the smallest not-for-profit theaters all the way to Broadway, Lincoln Center, the Apollo and the Village Vanguard. Members also play in a  variety of freelance orchestras, including the American Symphony. 

Krauthamer is stepping down as president of Local 802 after serving a three-year term. LaborPress sat down with him to learn about his tenure, challenges and victories, as well as his plans for the future.

LP: You’re a French horn player, correct? 

AK: I was. It’s more of an in-the-weeds background thing. Our bylaws state that, if and when you’re elected, you can no longer perform on the contracts you negotiate. Which, for me as president, is all of them. You can’t be a performing musician while you’re president, so I had to make the sacrifice and put that on hold. But for sixteen years, since I finished college, yeah, professional French horn player. 

LP: What types of venues did you play?

Adam Krauthamer.

AK: I played mostly classical music and theater. But I played in everything. From on Broadway, when I resigned my chair at Frozen the Musical, I’d done a number of Broadway shows. I was playing in the Tony Awards band. I played in the American Symphony, New York Pops, a number of different freelance orchestras.  The orchestras at Lincoln Center like the Met opera. So, I really did a wide variety things and a lot of TV and film recording. 

LP: And what made you want to become a musician?

AK: Music and musicians — same reason I’m in this job. Right around in ninth grade where everybody’s trying to figure out what the hell are you going to actually do. You know, what’s next? It’s sort of like turning on. I was lucky enough to have a really great band teacher and I had been playing the French horn, albeit that was not my focus. She really took an interest in me and I was taking lessons. The first time I ever sat in an orchestra, she encouraged me to audition. I got into New York Youth Symphony. Two things happened. I said, ‘This music speaks to me.’ And I think that this is powerful and important. And these are my people. I relate to them and I like musicians, and I want to be one. So, I spent all my time trying to become a professional musician. I was lucky enough to go to one of the top music schools in the country for undergrad, and then also for graduate school. Then was also very lucky, which is not always the case for union presidents, I’d say, to have a very happening performance career.  I went to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, and then went to Yale for graduate school.

LP: In terms of your union career, what was the biggest challenge during your tenure as president?

AK: The biggest challenge during my tenure as president, hands down, was the pandemic. Our industry and my members primarily work in groups and primarily do live performance for large audiences by definition. We’re trying to get people in a room — that’s the whole point and by definition of what we do. It was an industry that was directly undermined by Covid. And in order to protect people we couldn’t have large gatherings. The spread of the virus was something that was going to obviously be in conflict with live performance where people are playing instruments or singing, in close spaces, let alone on stage or with larger audiences getting together. So, virtually overnight in March of 2020, our entire industry was shut down. It was then mandated to be shut down by the nature of what the governor said about people convening indoors not being allowed. We didn’t even have access to a job market all of a sudden, and we had virtually one-hundred-percent unemployment. That really stayed the same until some small things like recording studio work and late night bands, TV work in isolation. Again, those don’t have audiences and are smaller groups. Until that started happening, we were at one-hundred-percent [unemployment], and then we stayed at virtually ninety-five-percent unemployment for almost eighteen months. 

LP: How did workers survive? 

AK: We were not immune to our problems before this. The problem that we really faced before this was a struggling pension fund that was in critical and declining status. We had all of these [problems] — a drop in membership — we had all of these issues heading into what is the biggest crisis we’ve ever had. And it all hit at once. To put it in perspective for how much of a crisis this was for our industry and union, the only time for example, Broadway had been closed down was 9/11 when Broadway stayed closed for five days.

And after that, the response there was, are people going to come back and overwhelmingly in the face of a threat? They said, No, it’s safe. We’re coming back. The problem with Covid is when it’s in the environment that level of security couldn’t be developed and people couldn’t come back. So, we went from a five day shutdown being our worst crisis to eighteen months. And it was very clear at the outset of the pandemic, within a month’s time, that we were going to have to renegotiate all of our agreements. We were going to have to figure out how to get our members from point A to point B. Some agreements we were going to get some payments, a majority of them were going to have employers that provided nothing. No health care, no wages, nothing. And all of those members were what I was really focused on. So, in response to that a big shift in my job was to clearly communicate to a constituency of elected officials how dire our circumstances were. In the literal sense, if they didn’t figure out enhanced unemployment, if they didn’t figure out how to help out 1099 workers, if they didn’t figure out COBRA subsidies for health care — our industry because it was mandated to be shut down — not only are you going to wipe out the industry and you’re going to see a mass exodus potentially that could be hurtful to the arts and culture in New York — long term, just on a human level, people are not going to be able to survive. So, that transition led us to work with real leaders like Senator [Chuck] Schumer, and in the first Cares Act, we were able to get in enhanced unemployment, which was huge for our industry. Enhanced unemployment also for gig workers [and] 1099 workers. We are the original gig workers in some sense, a lot of us.

And then we continued to work on long term policy for the next nine months, almost a year, until a year later, when the American Rescue Plan was enacted. We continue to focus on our pension plan which was failing, being backstopped, COBRA subsidies being covered for a period of time and continuing enhanced unemployment. And all of those things were covered in the American Rescue Plan. So, that was sort of our focus, and that relief was tangible. Then the conversation that wasn’t happening that I was trying to drive that I thought was of great importance, is how do we not have what I wrote an op-ed about, what would be an inevitable great cultural depression? If help doesn’t come, if these things don’t happen, you’re gonna see an exodus. And how can we get more government support more quickly? How can employers figure out ways to help out their workers? And that was really a conversation that just wasn’t being had enough in the public domain.

Because everyone was struggling — and I think a lot of times people think of arts workers, musicians, actors, stagehands — as people are doing something in the entertainment business for fun when the reality is, most artists, musicians, live on the fringes in normal times. I’m a huge Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen fan. Most people in Bruce’s band are great and they’re 802 musicians, but that that’s certainly the rare case. Most of my musicians in normal times are trying to figure out how to get by being a professional musician. Then this crisis hit and we needed to figure it out. So, on an internal level as well, we ramped up our efforts for our Emergency Relief Fund. We launched a few campaigns around that. One of which was called ‘Save NYC Musicians’ that we had Tina Fey graciously help us out to do our first launch. We brought in over $500,000 of emergency relief, which we were able to start getting out to musicians. And now we’re still getting it out to musicians today who are facing more and more cancellations of work due to Omicron.

LP: What do you consider the union’s greatest victory during your tenure?

AK: I think there’s really the before and after. I think that it resets that way for our union because of the level of the crisis this is. The word unprecedented gets used too often, but if you look at our unemployment and what happened in the eighteen months — the fact that you’re seeing shows still closing this week left and right — I’ve just had 10 Broadway shows close; the New York City Ballet is now closed to the New Year — we’re living in this crisis still.

So, I would say it’s hard. The first major accomplishment is that we see an end to this pandemic. Obviously, we’re back to work, and as a union by banding together, and through a lot of hard work, we survived the pandemic. I will tell you that our industry was not going in the right direction. Long before the pandemic. As I mentioned, we’ve seen major drops in membership, less work under contract, a pension fund that was in crisis, rising costs for health care, healthcare inflation, all of these things. Downward trend on wages in the orchestral sector and nonprofit sector — that was happening before the pandemic. So, I would say in phase one, we were very successful in bargaining economic packages that had far exceeded those of years past. Broadway, our biggest piece of business, we were able to secure the largest economic and healthcare gains since the early 90’s. And we were doing the same on other contracts until the pandemic hit. We also saw a major increase in member engagements at our meetings, in our committees.

All those things were great. Now, when phase two hit, what was great and the reason we survived, the member engagement stayed up. And our solidarity was there through this pandemic. The part that became just an everyday battle was figuring out our survival through negotiating our CBAs. Needless to say, in an industry that was not going in the right direction before, and then there was a-once-in-a-lifetime pandemic and a closure for eighteen months — it was not just concessionary negotiating in bargaining environment, but a very, very, very aggressive one where we had a number of employers that sought to use the pandemic to weaken our agreements. It really took a lot of our members’ hard work and perseverance — and frankly, fearless efforts — to get through this. That was stage two. That’s the biggest accomplishment.

LP: As your tenure is drawing to a close, what do you foresee for yourself in the future? 

AK: I am staying on the Executive Board of the union. I have a nineteen-month-old daughter now. What’s crazy, she was born in May at the beginning of the pandemic. As I mentioned, the pandemic really became a seven-day-a-week job. But I’m not going far. I know that I’m gonna continue to help musicians first. Like I said, I became a professional musician because I love music and musicians. I became a union president because I felt like I could help musicians. I’m going to stay on the board to continue to do that. I’ve really enjoyed my time working in labor and getting to know people in the labor movement. Whether it was Vinnie Alvarez at the Central Labor Council, or my union counterparts like President Jim Claffey of the Stagehands Union at Local One or Rebecca Damon at SAG-AFTRA. I really think that this is as important unions are the most important aspect of protecting the arts & culture and the people who work in arts & culture and what we call entertainment. I’m really committed to figuring out how I can continue to do that in the labor world and some other side projects that I have been focused on, but, obviously don’t have the time to do. I’m very lucky to have an amazing wife and daughter that I look forward to seeing every day and spending more time with on the weekends.

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