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Fall opening night of New York City Ballet is a touchstone event on the cultural calendar.
This year, though, the occasion arrived with undertones of discontent after members of the company’s orchestra overwhelmingly voted early this month to authorize a strike against the ballet company if talks on a new contract stall.
The musicians, whose last contract expired Aug. 31, say City Ballet is not offering the wages or the benefits they deserve. They also said they were not paid from June 2020 to September 2021 when performances were shut down during the pandemic. Their union, American Federation of Musicians Local 802, said the musicians then had their pay trimmed by 15 percent, even though the company received a $10 million Small Business Administration grant in July 2021. NYCB is again seeking concessions, the musicians said.
But the musicians claim that City Ballet’s fundraising has been “robust” and that ticket sales are even higher than they were before the pandemic. They also cite the company’s healthy endowment, which stood at $216.7 million in 2021, according to tax documents, as another reason the company can afford raises for the musicians.
On Sept. 19., hours before the opening night’s performance of City Ballet founder George Balanchine’s “Jewels,” the musicians and their supporters rallied on the Columbus Avenue sidewalk outside of Lincoln Center to publicize their contract effort.
“Ballet is nothing without music. Ballet is nothing without live music. George Balanchine said dancing is music being made visible. And that doesn’t happen without this orchestra,” Julia DeRosa, the principal oboe with the orchestra, said at the gathering.
NYCB: ‘Cut not imposed’
City Ballet, however, is disputing several of the union’s claims, including that management is seeking concessions. In a statement, NYCB said the union’s assertion that the 15 percent was imposed on them was false. Rather, the company said, Local 802, unlike the union representing dancers and stagehands, refused to renegotiate their salary when the pandemic hit and NYCB revenue plunged.
Although the musicians ultimately lost an arbitration case, the two sides ultimately negotiated a similar agreement it had with the dancers and stagehands, City Ballet said. “The musicians did not receive pay until after the 15 months only because of their union’s decision to pursue the arbitration. The 15% salary cut was not imposed but negotiated mutually and in good faith along with the musicians’ COVID relief package,” NYCB said in its statement.
City Ballet said its current proposal would give the musicians an immediate 17.4 percent raise over their current pay, while the Local 802 is demanding a 23.5 percent increase. “That level of increase is simply not prudent,” NYCB’s statement said.
While the union is negotiating based on what City Ballet conceded was the company’s “healthy financial position” following the Covid shutdown, the statement said “keeping NYCB on solid financial footing into the future will require responsible financial management and continued equitable treatment of all employees.”
But the orchestra's musicians say that fair pay would consume little of the company’s operating budget. They note that ballet management has declined to provide the financial information that precludes them from offering better salaries.
The local, though, also declined to provide average salary figures for the musicians.
A year ago, the New York City Ballet dancers, who are represented by the American Guild of Musical Artists, secured a three-year agreement that restores pandemic-related cuts by the agreement’s end and also increases wages. In a statement quoted by The New York Times, the company said the dancers’ contract “both provides economic benefits, and continues our important work on creating a respectful and safe workplace for all employees.”
Still, the Guild’s president, Ned Hanlon, said at last week's rally that AGMA was “unwaveringly” supportive of the musician’s union, "and that commitment is even more significant here at this house where both unions have a substantial presence in this company.”
The “incredible” City Ballet orchestra, together with the dancers and stage managers represented by the guild, Hanlon added, “are the glue that holds the New York City Ballet together.”
Despite the strike threat, negotiations are ongoing.
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