Monday, July 18, 2011

More On The Musicians Union

So, I'd been hoping to get things started with a nice presentation of both sides of this issue. However, thus far, there has been no compelling pro-union case made in any of the emails I've received. So, we'll look at things from a critical angle first.

Let's look at the two recent stories I linked from the union newsletter...

On the surface, these stories (which the union has put out there) seem like union success stories, at least in part. In one, the union tells of its success at winning a $39,631.21 judgement against Barock Orchestra for health benefit contributions owed to the Local 802 Health Fund, its lawsuit against Neginah Orchestra and Shelly Lang to recoup $78,000 owed to the Local 802 Health Fund, and its convincing of Aaron Teitlebaum to sign a union contract.

The other one tells of the union efforts against Chaim Rosenblatt.

Yet, when reading these stories and thinking about them for a moment, it seems clear that the union does not protect musicians as it should, and that it selectively presents or misrepresents "facts" to suit its agenda.

Lets look at the first story...

Its been an open secret for years that Barock Orchestra has been regularly stiffing musicians, yet, where has the union been? The fact that things were allowed to get to the point where these kinds of amounts of p/w could be owed at all, seems to demonstrate that the union is NOT on top of situations where rank and file members are concerned. Similarly, without getting into specifics, there are an awful lot of known abuses by union bands that have gone unchecked for decades. Where is the union on this? Well, apparently, after the numbers accumulate enough, they are willing to go after money that will sit in their bank accounts for a while. But, as far as achieving justice for individual musicians who have been screwed, it seems, not so much.

The same with Neginah. There are decades of stories, and in fact, when I broke into the business many of the musicians I most respected were refusing to work for them after having been screwed.... yet the union did virtually nothing. And the idea of holding up one of the main actors there as "doing the right thing" since he split off, is weak tea at best.

OK, so the union isn't quick to stand up for rank and file members in the Jewish field... but certainly their organizing campaign against Chaim Rosenblatt is legit, right? Well, let's take a closer look at what they are trying to do...

The concept of the union, as I understand it, is to protect musicians from exploitation by unscrupulous management. So let's see....

The union makes a number of assertions about Rosenblatt in their article. On the face of it, some of them seemed absurd, so I emailed Rosenblatt to ask him a few questions about these issues.

Here are the questions I asked him:
I'm planning to write a piece about the union article you sent me. If you'd like to write a guest post, that offer stands.

I have a few quick questions for you... I've put some quotes from the article below with a quick question or two after each one, asking if the assertions made about you/your business practices are true.

"While claiming to be paying above scale to his musicians, a claim that we know is a lie, Rosenblatt cited the recent upheaval in Wisconsin in order to press home a point that should not be lost on Local 802 members."

1) Do you pay above scale to all of your musicians?
2) Do you or have you ever paid any musicians below scale?

"He also wants to paint the union as an organization that does not represent musicians but represents the Jewish club date offices who hire Local 802 musicians and who do the right thing and pay into the health and pension funds."

3) Is this a correct characterization?

"The truth is that the members themselves are calling us and asking us to please do something about Rosenblatt. By undercutting scales and not paying pension and health benefits, Rosenblatt’s ability to undercut bids from legitimate offices that hire union musicians is greatly increased."

4) Are you aware of any union musicians you've hired, who have complaints about your pay rates or the way you treated them?

"Rosenblatt may pay some players "scale" or even more – that’s fine with us. But we feel that Rosenblatt’s intention is to destroy the union in the Jewish club date field. Let’s say that Local 802 was forced to withdraw completely from this field. If that happened, does anyone think for one moment that Rosenblatt would continue to pay an amount greater than "union scale" if this scale didn’t exist anymore? And then, guess what would happen next? Another unscrupulous employer out there might then undercut Rosenblatt. More and more undercutting would lead to a race to the bottom. The union exists to prevent this scenario. We provide a minimum scale, a line in the sand that may not be crossed. That is why the grassroots musicians in this field are fundamentally on the union’s side – not Rosenblatt’s."

5) Do you really intend to "destroy" the union, so that you can pay musicians less?

"What kind of person is Chaim Rosenblatt? I think he’s a young businessman who exploits his employees and, because of that, undercuts his competition. He is apparently not a musician and does not understand or appreciate what it means to be a musician. I feel he is the kind of person who should not be allowed around art in any of its forms."

6) Has any musician ever complained to you that he/she feels exploited by you?
6a) Have you ever heard of such a claim being made to others by your musicians.
In his response, Rosenblatt told me that he treats his musicians well and always pays above scale - not just scale. Those union musicians who have health plans through the union need to have their jobs go through the union in order to count those jobs towards the required number of gigs to get those health benefits. Rosenblatt has offered to pay those musicians through the union, but the union is insisting that all musicians be paid that way. This insistence that he only use union musicians/pay through the union means that, if he signed a union contract, the union could (theoretically) stop him from hiring non-union musicians. Since many Jewish musicians are not union, this would potentially limit his ability to hire the musicians he wants. (In practice, the union hasn't forced this issue that I'm aware of with other bands.)

He does believe the the union represents the interests of the union offices, not the individual players. He says he is unaware of any musicians who are unhappy with their pay. (This allegation by the union seemed absurd on its face.)

It seems to me that an objective observer reading the union article against Rosenblatt would find it confusing -- (It both asserts that he pays less then scale AND that he pays over scale allegedly to "destroy the union") and not compelling.

Note: I am not a fan of the way Rosenblatt/Evenal broke into the business, but that still does not justify a smear campaign based on innuendo and distortion.

I'd still like to present a coherent argument for unions in general and for Local 802's continued involvement in the "frum" music business, so if you feel you can make one, please send it in.

If a good submission comes in, I'll post it. Otherwise, I intend to start looking at general claims the union makes, and explore whether they are true or relevant to the "frum" music industry.