This piece was updated at 5:00 PM with a statement from New York City Ballet.
The musicians of the New York City Ballet orchestra have voted "overwhelmingly" to authorize a strike as negotiations continue with NYCB management for a new contract. The vote could lead to a strike should negotiations break down. The organization is currently scheduled to present George Balanchine's Jewels September 19-24.
The current contract expired August 31. Musicians, represented by the American Federation of Musicians Local 802, are looking for increased wages after the group enacted 15 percent cuts upon their return to live performances following the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, AFM alleges that ticket sales have exceeded pre-pandemic figures, but their pay has not returned to pre-pandemic amounts and have not been adjusted for inflation.
"These hardworking musicians bring the magic of live music to the most celebrated dancers, night after night," says AFM President Tino Gagliardi. "They are cultural ambassadors who help make New York City the artistic capital of the world. They deserve a contract that allows them to work with dignity and enjoy affordable healthcare for themselves and their family. Instead, they are not being offered the wages and benefits they deserve and are instead being asked to make financial concessions once again. This is insulting and unacceptable, and musicians are fighting back."
"We urge the ballet to do the right thing and offer a fair proposal to its musicians that makes up for the sacrifices they were forced to endure during the pandemic, as well as staggering inflation," adds Local 802 President Sara Cutler. "We’ll do everything in our power to assist these courageous musicians in their fight for the dignity and respect they deserve."
New York City Ballet contests much of Local 802's claims in a statement released after this story was initially published. They specifically take issue with the union's allegation that the organization did not pay its musicians throughout the pandemic, writing "NYCB paid all of its employees, including the musicians, for the entire 2020 spring season when COVID first led to cancelled performances." The statement goes on to allege that following the next season's cancellation, NYCB made agreements for relief payments with their dancers and stagehands through those groups' unions, but AFM "declined to negotiate as the other unions did and instead claimed that they deserved full payment for a year of cancelled performances." According to NYCB, this claim was unsuccessfully taken to arbitration.
As for the wage reduction, NYCB says those cuts have been restored, with the current weekly salary slightly higher than it was in 2020 pre-pandemic. The statement also says that in negotiations they have offered to restore vacation pay and raise wages by three percent for the 2023-2024 season.
The fight is the latest for the musicians' union, which battled with Broadway's Here Lies Love and its plans to perform to pre-recorded tracks in lieu of a live orchestra earlier this year. Following last-minute negotiations, the production ultimately agreed to hire 12 union musicians that play in the musical's finale. Though the bulk of the performance is still accompanied by pre-recorded tracks, producers had previously planned on just one actor-musician.
AFM has circulated a petition in support of the NYCB orchestra musicians.
Read the New York City Ballet's full statement below:
"We are seeing press reports that Local 802 and the musicians of the New York City Ballet have voted to authorize a strike after we’ve worked to make progress on a number of issues over only five bargaining sessions. If true, this is very unfortunate and while we prefer to negotiate at the bargaining table and not in the media, Local 802’s public misrepresentations require us to set the record straight.
"A primary issue during the negotiations has been the musicians’ refusal to make reasonable contributions for healthcare benefits when all other NYCB employees on the same health care plan have been doing so for years. Since electing to be covered by NYCB’s health insurance plan 14 years ago, NYCB’s musicians have received free, year-round individual coverage while working only 24 weeks each year. Since then the cost of health care has increased dramatically, with an 38% increase to premiums this year alone.
"On the musician’s claim that NYCB did not pay them for over a year during COVID, NYCB paid all of its employees, including the musicians, for the entire 2020 spring season when COVID first led to cancelled performances. Then when the entire 2020-21 season was also cancelled, NYCB reached agreements for relief payments with the unions for the Company’s dancers (AGMA) and stagehands (Local 1). However, the musicians (Local 802), declined to negotiate as the other unions did and instead claimed that they deserved full payment for a year of canceled performances. Local 802 took that claim to arbitration and lost.
"Despite the fact that the arbitrator’s ruling did not require any payments to the musicians, NYCB management did not want them to go without relief payments for the time period when the COVID shutdowns were in place. As part of a negotiated agreement, NYCB provided retroactive relief payments to the musicians in one lump sum.
"On the subject of wages, any wages given up by NYCB’s regular orchestra musicians as part of the agreement for relief payments and during the return to live performance in 2021-22 have now been restored. The musicians agreed to reduce their salary by 6% for 2022, but then received a 6.7% cost-of-living increase in January 2023. Currently a regular orchestra member’s weekly salary is slightly higher than it was in 2020. In addition, as part of our current proposals to the musicians, NYCB has also offered to restore vacation pay that was given up during the pandemic and make a 3% wage increase for the 2023-2024 season. The 3% increase we have offered would apply going forward and come on top of the wage increase from last year.
"We look forward to working with Local 802 towards reaching a mutually beneficial agreement."