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New York City Ballet Orchestra Musicians Campaign for Better Contract

Musicians of the orchestra are requesting a new and fair contract as they claim their current pay is less than pre-pandemic periods


With their most recent contract expiring on August 31, 2023, the musicians of the New York City Ballet (NYBC) Orchestra are now demanding compensation after reportedly going without pay for 15 months due to the pandemic-related wage cuts.

Represented by AFM Local 802, the musicians have this week rallied outside Lincoln Center ahead of NYBC’s 2023 season opener. They also voted last month to authorize a strike if negotiations stall.

According to Local 802 president Sara Cutler, the orchestra’s musicians went without pay for 15 months, took a 15% pay cut in 2021, and are currently working for 9.3% less than compensation for 2019. 

Additionally, with more than 15% inflation, the musicians' purchasing power is 23% less than in 2019, while management’s recent contract offer also included raising health care premiums, the International Musician explained.

Now in its 75th season, the NYBC reportedly had an endowment valued at $263 million during the period wage cuts were imposed in 2021, and received over $10 million in pandemic support from the government.

“During the pandemic, ballet management didn’t pay its musicians for more than a year, from June 2020 to September 2021,” Cutler said. “This led to many workers doing the unthinkable for them — leaving the city. Some who left for the suburbs, other states, and even Europe, never returned. The hardships we faced were many, especially given the fact that we had no pay for more than a year.”

“The ballet’s fundraising efforts have been robust and ticket sales have now exceeded 100 percent of pre-pandemic levels,” wrote Local 802 (NYC). “A fair proposal to musicians would cost only a fraction of the ballet’s operating budget.  Yet ballet management refuses to be transparent with financial information to justify its insulting offer to musicians.”


A statement received yesterday by The Violin Channel from the NYCB reads:

“The union has claimed that NYCB is asking musicians to make ‘significant healthcare concessions,’ when in fact, NYCB is asking them to make reasonable contributions for healthcare benefits as all other NYCB employees on the same health care plan have been doing 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. NYCB also continued to pay for its musicians’ health care coverage during the pandemic shutdown when they were not working at all. In recent years the cost of healthcare has skyrocketed, with NYCB’s premiums increasing by 38% this year alone, necessitating contributions from the musicians.  

Local 802’s assertions that NYCB’s musicians worked without pay for 15 months, after which a 15% cut was “imposed” upon them, is also misleading. Unlike the unions for NYCB’s dancers and stagehands, the musicians refused to discuss a relief pay package and insisted they were due full pay when the government shut down all performances and NYCB lost more than $55 million dollars. The musicians took that matter to arbitration and lost. 

After the arbitration ruling, NYCB had no obligation to pay the musicians anything. The Company did not, however, want the musicians to go without pay so management returned to the bargaining table and negotiated a similar arrangement with them as had been negotiated with the dancers and stagehands. Once the settlement was reached, the musicians were immediately paid retroactively in a lump sum.”


On October 5, a rally held by the musicians and their supporters — which coincided with NYBC’s annual fall fashion gala — was attended by many of NYC’s biggest labor unions, including members of AGMA, SAG-AFTRA, the Writers Guild of America, Actors Equity, IATSE, and others. 

During their second rally on October 11, the musicians also stood together in silence from the orchestra pit before tuning for the performance. To date, over 3,900 supporters have signed the musicians’ petition for a fair contract.

“When our audiences come to the ballet, they expect that the creative workers who make the magic happen will be treated fairly,” added bassoonist and musicians’ negotiating committee chair Ethan Silverman. “But since ballet management is not offering us a fair contract, despite months of bargaining, we have taken our message to the public.”

“Musicians of the New York City Ballet deserve a contract that allows them to work with dignity and enjoy affordable health care for themselves and their families,” said AFM’s president Tino Gagliardi. “They are not being offered the wages and benefits they deserve and are instead being asked to make financial concessions once again.”


“The musicians did not receive pay until after the 15 months only because of their union’s decision to pursue the arbitration,” NYBC stated in response. “The 15% salary cut was not imposed but negotiated mutually and in good faith along with the musicians’ COVID relief package. In addition, as the musicians are employed seasonally and work only 24 weeks each year, they did not lose 15 months of work at NYCB during the pandemic shutdown as they have claimed.  

“At the close of the 2023 Spring Season last June, the musicians were working for 9.3% below their 2019 compensation due to the necessary COVID-related reductions,” they added. “However, the proposal that NYCB has currently offered would immediately raise musicians’ salaries by 17.4% over their current compensation, which includes restoration of the 9.3% cut.  Local 802 has demanded what is equivalent to a 23% pay increase in the first year. That level of increase is simply not prudent.  

“Local 802 is basing its argument in large part on NYCB’s healthy financial position emerging from COVID. It is true that NYCB worked very hard to manage the massive revenue losses and other impacts of the pandemic, and it is certainly our hope that the sort of sacrifices made by all NYCB employees will not be necessary going forward,” they continued. “But keeping NYCB on solid financial footing into the future will require responsible financial management and continued equitable treatment of all employees. [We are] hopeful that Local 802 and our musicians will join us in working towards reaching a mutually beneficial agreement.”

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