Contract fight at Manhattan School of Music

August 24, 2009

NEW YORK--After winning a hotly contested union certification battle in May, some 150 teachers of the Manhattan School of Music's Pre-college Division--all of whom are trained as classical or jazz musicians--will enter into collective bargaining negotiations with the administration this fall.

This fight has been along time in the making.

In 2002, a new administration began reducing teaching loads, in effect cutting the pay of many long-term teachers at the Manhattan School of Music Pre-college Division. In addition, teachers' health care benefits were revoked, as well as a sick day for classroom instructors.

Instead of being assigned a teaching load commensurate with past experience, teachers were told they had to "find [their] own students"--a surprising change of policy, considering that these teachers were hired to teach students that the administration recruited through its catalog and promotions.

Moreover, the administration selectively applied this new policy regarding recruitment to existing faculty only--new hires were regularly assigned to students they didn't recruit.

A faculty council, formed by pianist Adam Kent in 2004 in response to these attacks and the overall loss of academic freedom, began holding annual open faculty meetings, one of which resulted in disciplinary hearings for Kent.

Around the same time, a successful union drive by the faculty of the New School in New York City resulted in a contract that improved working conditions and pay for staff and faculty at all the member colleges of the New School, including the teachers at the Mannes College, another conservatory in New York City.

"Following the implementation of the union contract at Mannes, one of the teachers reported getting $27 per hour more than he had been making, health benefits and school contributions to TIAA-CREF [a retirement plan] with three hours of teaching a week, better job security and overall academic freedoms," explained Kent.

An initial drive begun in September 2008 with the New York State United Teachers union at both the pre-college and college divisions at Manhattan School of Music failed for lack of support from the 270-member college faculty, where salaries and working conditions are better.

Forty-five "hybrid" teachers taught in both divisions, but were paid more on average for their pre-college work than the others. When the pre-college division insisted on going forward with its own vote, the administration intensified its offensive.

Kent described the administration's response:

The administration did everything you would expect. They said we didn't need a union because we already could communicate directly with them, that we didn't need third parties, etc. They insisted that we bargain as a unit with the hybrids, even though their pay and interests were different from ours. It was classic divide and conquer.

We felt so strongly about it that we had a hearing before the National Labor Relations Board in March 2009. We were disappointed when we lost the hearing a month later, but decided to hold the vote anyway with the hybrids, even though we weren't sure we'd win.

But teachers fought back and won a close vote with a campaign of outreach that offset the "no" votes of the hybrids--some who supported the union anyway against the hopes of the administration. The contracts the teachers have received can be superseded based on the outcome of the collective bargaining, which will begin when lessons resume in September.

Kent described some of the lessons that teachers have learned during this fight:

In this drive, I saw sides of people's characters I had never seen before, in ways good and bad. Many teachers grew up under repressive conditions in the former Soviet Union, and are very fearful to put their names down on anything.

I'll never forget when a fellow teacher, a former Soviet citizen who had always been compliant with the administration, came in and said in a proud voice "I vote yes for the union! I vote yes for freedom!" An NLRB representative told him "You're not supposed to tell people how you intend to vote." The teacher told him "I don't care! I came to this country for freedom, and I am free to say I want a union."

We see this issue not just as one of pay and benefits, but also of academic freedom and respect. We think it speaks volumes that people who have been teaching for decades are denied health benefits and decent working conditions while the university president is given a brand-new duplex apartment worth millions of dollars.

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