‘Conservatory With a Heart’ Embroiled in Union Dispute

By Jon Kalish

Published September 12, 2003, issue of September 12, 2003.
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The Lucy Moses School bills itself as “The Conservatory With a Heart,“ but some teachers at the arts school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side say the institution has had little sympathy for their efforts to unionize.

Dozens of teachers at the school voted to join Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians in an election certified by the National Labor Relations Board last October. Almost six months of negotiations have resulted in little progress, according to the union. A lawyer for the school said the negotiations are “progressing.”

“They have not offered us anything new since February. They have not moved on any of their numbers whatsoever. And we have,” said Miho Matsuno, a member of the negotiating committee who teaches violin at the school. “It’s very difficult for us to negotiate with a school that refuses to budge and that’s been our experience for the last six months now.”

The union also represents teachers at P.S. 859, a New York City public school for musically gifted children. P.S. 859, Merkin Concert Hall and the Lucy Moses School make up the Kaufman Center, an arts organization with a $5 million annual budget. The center is nonsectarian but observes the Jewish Sabbath and Jewish holidays. Its mission statement notes that the center “draws on a rich Jewish cultural heritage.” The Lucy Moses School was originally founded in 1952 as the Hebrew Arts School for Music and Dance. It serves some 3,000 students a year, offering music, dance and theater courses for adults and children.

Matsuno said the union was proposing that teachers be paid a minimum of $40 for a 60-minute private lesson at the Lucy Moses School and $37 for a 45-minute group class. The union is asking for an employer pension contribution of 7%, 8% and 9% respectively during the three years of the contract and is proposing that the center pay a proportionate contribution for health insurance based on the hours teachers work.

“In this day and age these are just basic necessities that are due people of our professional level of standing,” said Catherine Aks, who has taught voice at the school for more than 20 years.

Like many of her colleagues at the Lucy Moses School, the 56-year-old Brooklynite cobbles together a living by juggling a number of gigs. In addition to teaching between 15 and 18 students a week at the music school, Aks is a freelance choral singer, as well as artist-in-residence at Brooklyn Technical High School and Bayside High School. She earns between $25,000 and $30,000 a year.

“I do believe there is some wiggle room for the school to maybe reduce their take [of tuition paid by students] a bit and maybe increase their tuition a bit and thereby manage to finance some of what we’re asking for,” she said.

Fred Braid, the lawyer representing the Kaufman Center in the labor negotiations, said the economic climate must be taken into consideration in the contract. Braid said that the wage hikes and benefits outlined in the union’s opening proposal would have amounted to 70% or 80% more than what the teachers now earn. The union’s second proposal lowered that figure to about 45% to 50%, Braid said, and its most recent proposal brings the cost down to about 25%.

“You know what the economy is,” the lawyers said. “Let me know when you see employers agreeing to a 25% increase [in labor costs].”

Braid said the Kaufman Center has offered to contribute 2% of annual wages into a pension fund for some teachers after the second year of the contract. He added that the center has offered to contribute to health insurance for teachers “who work as little as 10 hours a week.” But by the center’s own estimate, 82% of the 130 or so teachers would not qualify for the 10-hour-a-week minimum. The union negotiating committee’s Matsuno said only 12 teachers would qualify for health insurance under the center’s proposal.

“I think people who have been employed there for 20 years deserve to be on some sort of plan through the center because they have devoted so much time to that institution,” Matsuno said.

The violin teacher concedes that it is unprecedented for an employer to contribute funds toward the cost of health insurance for someone who works so few hours, but it is a practice that musicians who work at many different venues have put in place. The concept has enabled Local 802 to unionize the New School University’s jazz studies and guitar studies departments; Midori & Friends, which sends music teachers to public schools; and The Early Ear, a private school in Manhattan geared toward young children.

Matsuno, who also teaches in an after-school music program in Dobbs Ferry and performs with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s to make a living, says she has much respect for the Kaufman Center for maintaining “such a wonderful faculty over the years” but believes that the center tries to keep teachers working less hours a week to minimize the expense of benefits. It’s a charge attorney Braid brands “hogwash.”

Perhaps as contentious as the chasm over wages and benefits is the dispute over a union proposal to assign individual teachers for private lessons based on seniority. In a letter to parents of students, the center warned that this could change the school’s character and would be “a serious mistake.”

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