The New York Philharmonic Strike of 1973: Part I

By Kuan Cheng Lu

The New York Philharmonic Strike of 1973 is a tale that has long been waiting to be told. The sole volume to mention it, John Canarina’s 2010 history, devotes less than two pages to it. Kuan Cheng Lu presents the story here in two parts: first, an historical background on labor relations between orchestral musicians and management in the U.S., with a focus on the Philharmonic and a lead-up to the union's decision to walkout; and second, a comprehensive narrative of the strike, with commentary on its consequences and current and potential future problems in labor relations for the Philharmonic and American symphony orchestras in general. Part II will appear tomorrow.

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During the first part of the nineteenth century, opportunities for musicians to earn income with their musical skills were limited mostly to playing parties, dances, or funerals. It was usually necessary for musicians to supplant their income with nonmusical jobs in order to sustain themselves. Moreover, attempts by workers to start labor movements at this time were viewed as criminal conspiracies.[1] It was not until 1842, when the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled that the common-law doctrine of criminal conspiracy no longer applied to labor unions, that it became possible to organize the first musician unions.[2]

New York’s Philharmonic Society was established by a self-governing group of elite instrumentalists as a cooperative venture in 1842. Its management structure was based on “democratic principles;” all members were to participate collectively. All performing members shared the profit after the expenses of the season had been paid. Yet the Society did not offer full-time employment to its members, which made it “to many a player at best a pleasant luxury and at worst a dubious venture, not worthy of causing interruption in [] regular employment.”[3]

In the 1850s, American musicians began to search for ways to improve their economic status and professional lives, and musicians living in New York, Chicago, Baltimore, and San Francisco began to organize what might be thought of as the forebears of musical unions. These proto-unions, however, functioned more as mutual aid societies—helping to provide sick leave, death benefits, and financial loan assistance—than as organizations whose primary goal was the improvement of wages and the conditions of employment. In 1863, approximately 150 players in New York’s theater orchestras gathered to form one of these protective unions, incorporated the following year, and later renamed the Musical Mutual Protective Union (MMPU). The organization became so important that most orchestral musicians in New York became members, including the Philharmonic Society, Theodore Thomas Orchestra, and the conductors Carl Bergmann and Theodore Thomas. The success of the MMPU quickly influenced musicians in other American cities to form their own unions. By the late 1870s, locals began to compete with one another, facing competition from military bands and traveling musicians, domestic and international. To deal with the problem, the president of the Cincinnati local gathered fifteen delegates from different locals in 1886 to form a national organization, the National League of Musicians (NLM). Over the next decade, more than one hundred locals joined its force.[4]

In these early years, the group received a number of invitations to join the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Knights of Labor. But, because many NLM members did not want to view themselves as “laborers,” these invitations were at first rejected. Over the next decade, however, as the AFL succeeded in helping skilled workers obtain better wages and working conditions, the NLM reversed itself, forming the American Federation of Musicians (AFM). Within ten years, the group organized 424 locals, representing 45,000 members in the United States and Canada.

The AFM required all foreigners to reside in the United States for at least six months before becoming eligible for membership, but the rule seems to have done little to stem the tide. Orchestra conductors seemed always to be in favor of employing musicians from Europe—allegedly on account of their superior performing skills. Local unions made numerous attempts to invoke the Alien Contract Labor Law, which was passed by the Congress in 1885 to “prohibit the importation and migration of foreigners and aliens under contract or agreement to perform labor in the United States.” However, the law provided an outline of exemptions that included “professional actors, artists, lecturers, or singers.” It was not until 1932 that Congress finally amended contract labor law, thereby recognizing musicians as workers.

In these early decades of the twentieth century, the competition between orchestras in New York was fierce. By 1920, the city had three privately subsidized organizations: The Philharmonic Society, the New York Symphony Society, and the National Symphony (also known as the New Symphony Society). A boon to the public, which had an increasing appetite for orchestral music, the excess of riches offered by these three institutions was financially unsustainable. All three orchestras reported yearly deficits; despite generous philanthropists, none was able to make a profit. Soon, the idea of consolidation became a regular topic at board meetings.

The first of these consolidations took place in 1921, when the Philharmonic Society and the National Symphony combined their resources. Seven years later, the New York Philharmonic and the New York Symphony publicly announced their amalgamation. The decision proved to be a crucial step both for the New York Philharmonic and for the concert-going public. According to Howard Shanet, the “Philharmonic-Symphony Society became, for all practical purposes, the official orchestra of the City of New York and the focus of the city’s orchestral activity…”[5]

From its founding in 1842, the Philharmonic’s mission has been to promulgate first-class symphonic music, and only a very few occasions have prevented a scheduled concert: the first, Lincoln’s assassination; the second, FDR’s death. But in 1957, at the start of its 116th season, two concerts were called off because of unsuccessful contract negotiations on wage rates, retirement pensions, and the length of the season. It was the very first time that contract disputes between the musicians and their management had impacted the opening of the Philharmonic’s new season. Union officials pointed out that the Boston Symphony’s musicians played a guaranteed season of forty-eight weeks, while the Philharmonic was far behind, with twenty-nine. Management issued an ultimatum, claiming it had been operating at a loss, with a deficit of $242,000 from the previous season, which ostensibly made it impossible to meet the musicians’ demands for substantial wage and season length increases. Both sides came to an agreement a few days later, when the union accepted a revised offer.[6]

Shortly after the 1961 season opened, however, negotiations for a new contract broke down. The key issue was said to be the length of contract. Management wanted a three-year contract with guaranteed seasons of thirty-six, forty, and forty-two weeks, respectively. But because of the impending relocation from Carnegie Hall to Lincoln Center at the end of the new season, the musicians wanted a one-year contract with fifty-two weeks of guaranteed employment. After the Philharmonic made its best and final offer, the musicians -- evidently, never directly involved in the bargaining process -- voted to strike, against the union's recommendation. The work stoppage caused the cancellation of a recording session for Columbia Records and all rehearsals and concerts. Just one week later, however, the musicians voted to accept the contract they rejected, claiming dubiously they wanted to “keep the flow of the music to the public uninterrupted.”

In the almost seven decades from its founding, the Philharmonic had been governed democratically, with members voting on what to play and who to serve as conductor, a remarkable example of enlightened self-governance, considering that musicians were generally thought of as servants in the 1800s. But as demands for economic growth increased rapidly in the post-WWII era, the musician saw his voice gradually diminish, once again, from artist to common laborer. This set the stage for the dramatic strike of 1973.

Strike!

Labor unrest peaked among orchestral musicians in the 1970s, as stagnant growth and double digit inflation ravaged the United States. For symphony and opera musicians in large northern cities like Newark, Chicago, and Denver, it was a period of difficult negotiations. In New York, the City Opera and Radio City Music Hall saw tense, protracted discussions as well.

On July 17, 1973, the musicians’ negotiating committee and their union representatives met with Philharmonic management for the first time to discuss the contract set to expire in September. Max Aarons, the president of Local 802, presented to the board of directors an initial proposal of one-year agreement. At the top of their proposal list was the scale of pay, which suggested for an increase of $70 per week across the board, longevity pay of $10 per week after each five years of service (maximum $35), a seniority increment of $25 per week, as well as minimum overscale for the revolving string players. In response, Carlos Moseley, the president of the Philharmonic Society, said they had no proposals to submit, and would make a brief statement at the next meeting -- implying their terms would be in the other direction on a good many points.[7]

At the next meeting Moseley informed the committee that the Philharmonic was facing the most serious financial crisis of its history; it was in no position to offer any increase in pay, and, moreover, a one-year contract would have a serious negative impact upon planning and commitments. Ticket prices had been raised as high as the Society thought the market would bear. Government funds had not come through. The Endowment campaign had not reached the original goal of $10 million. And the Society had taken on many additional obligations, with this undelivered revenue in mind.

Aarons countered that this was typical of the way the management began negotiations -- asking labor to do more work for less money -- and compared the contracts at the Philharmonic to those at the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and other symphonies. Musicians playing a big wedding or even in a bar made $75 a night, more than what the Philharmonic paid. To live in New York City, the musicians’ representative said, the players had to have more income. What the musicians were asking for was what they needed six years ago. Essential benefits such as health and welfare had also not been covered, adequately. And where Chicago had been adding members, the Society was trying to reduce the size of the orchestra. Lorin Bernsohn, committee chairman, saw it as “the beginning of the end. The New York Philharmonic w[ill] end up being something like the Kansas City Philharmonic.”[8]

Negotiations dragged on without progress until September, when they were suspended for the orchestra’s vacation period. When they resumed, and the two sides gathered for the seventh time, they were joined by attorney Martin Oppenheimer, representing the Philharmonic Society, and Harold Lawrence, the new manager. Nonetheless, arguments continued to fly, with neither side backing down. The Philharmonic opened its 1973-74 season on the evening of September 18 with a gala Pension Fund Benefit Concert, both parties understanding the contract would expire at midnight on September 20. In hopes of reaching a new agreement, they scheduled two more meetings.

The next day committee members asked management to consider having three three-hour rehearsals a week, to save on the hall rental, and to experiment with sectional string rehearsals in the morning and winds and brass rehearsals in the afternoon. Rehearsal time would thus be reduced for each musician, but would remain the same for the orchestra as a whole. The committee expressed concern, too, over management’s proposal of a fifth concert during the week, which could easily result in extreme fatigue and tension.

Oppenheimer refused, saying he would not negotiate anything less in service from the musicians; offering only that the fifth concert might be student-only, to lessen the physical strain on the players. Rabinowitz suggested management increase the players’ wages to $25, $15, and $10 over the next three years, comparing the weekly scale to Chicago and the other “big five” orchestras. But Oppenheimer held firm to $10, $15, and $10, denying that the Philharmonic had scales below the other orchestras, and saying their proposed increase would put the musicians at the top. While noting that the Philharmonic was probably the leading orchestra in the world, he added that it was not compelled to pay more than the others anyway.[9]

The union’s lawyer, Victor Rabinowitz, took the opportunity to bring up a rumor that had been circulating, that Avery Fisher, the pioneer manufacturer of high-fidelity phonograph and radio equipment, had made an enormous donation to the Hall and Society. (In fact, the committee knew the gift was real, but they were not sure what its conditions might be.) Oppenheimer responded that it was a fund to underwrite the cost of maintaining the Hall.

Because of the contract with Lincoln Center, it had always been customary that the Society shared the Hall’s deficit with the Center. Fisher’s gift would be a blessing to both sides. But its timing inevitably added more ambiguity. Lincoln Center, New York’s cultural hub, reported a deficit of $17.9 million during the 1972-1973 season; including deficits of $7.8 million at the Metropolitan Opera, $4.3 million at the City Center of Music and Drama (the New York State Theater), and $1.9 million at the Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra. Alice Tully Hall, the Film Society, the Juilliard School, and a few others constituents were also running deficits. And despite philanthropic donations totaling $14.2 million, Lincoln Center was still short by $3.7 million. Management estimated the deficit would be twice as much the following season, because of high costs, inflation, and lack of subsidies.

Avery Fisher

Avery Fisher

Fisher’s promise of May 10, 1973, to do what Tully had done in supporting the hall that bears her name, was a breakthrough. Avery’s father, Charles Fisher, was a successful real estate professional, with one of the largest collections of acoustic horn gramophones. In an interview, Avery explained that his love of music came from his parents:

She played the violin, which in Russia in those times was never done. A girl might play the piano, not the violin. It was very avant-garde for that place at that time.

I had such admiration for my Dad. We didn’t have all that much money in the house, but with the first $100 he could put aside he went out and bought a piano.

His feeling was that every one of his kids had to have two things: a college degree, and be able to play music.[10]

Fisher was a passionate music lover throughout his life -- a “chamber-music fanatic,” the New York Times said. He often hosted chamber music concerts at his apartment on 96th Street and Park Avenue, and, an amateur violinist, played first or second, depending on the music.[11]

When asked why he had chosen the Hall to receive his fortune, Fisher said his main objective was to allow more performances at a reasonable rate, and hopefully to encourage more music in New York City. His donation was repayment, he said, of the personal debt he felt to those who make music for the public: “I owe it all to live music and live musicians. They made everything possible for me.” He stipulated that twenty percent of his donation would go exclusively toward cultivating and nourishing the careers of young professionals from around the country.

Although the size of Fisher’s gift was kept undisclosed, Amyas Ames, chairman of both Lincoln Center and the Philharmonic Society, said that about $500,000 would be used to support the hall’s annual operational expenses: window washing, security, electricity, etc.

What he did not -- and perhaps did not want to -- mention was that the hall had a long history of acoustical troubles and necessary renovations since opening in 1962, and that quite possibly some or even most of Fisher’s donation would have to be spent towards additional hall renovations. When the New York Philharmonic first moved to Lincoln Center from Carnegie Hall, Philharmonic Hall had been promoted as a venue with not only plenty of comfort and amenities, but also immaculate sound. But at the hall’s opening gala concert, which featured the New York Philharmonic under the baton of Leonard Bernstein, it immediately became clear that the hall was less than acceptable acoustically. One of the critical issues was the sound on the stage itself: the musicians constantly complained about not having enough bass and clarity, and more importantly, about not being able to hear each other well enough on stage. Conductors were hesitant to commend on the tonal quality of the hall, and audience’s perception was that the distance between performers and audience was too far apart, which then weakened the impact of the music. George Szell, present at the hall’s tuning week in 1962, said: “Tear it down and start over.”[12]

The management of Lincoln Center was well aware of the acoustical problems, and subsequently spent a total of about $2 million in attempts to correct the deficiencies during the summers of 1963, 1964, 1965, and 1969.[13] None of these attempts did much to correct the problem, and the sense of disappointment within the organization only grew larger.

Management, however, countered that musicians were “insisting on perfection... in all truth," they said, "Fisher Hall is a perfectly adequate installation.” Fisher himself, invited by Lincoln Center to join a study of the problem, shared the opinion: “Many of the comments about the hall made today are unjustified, ... much of the chitchat is like the stories about U.F.O.’s mass hysteria, almost. It’s like athlete’s foot, the way it spreads from toe to toe, from cocktail party to cocktail party, and gets all out of proportion. No one has to apologize for the present state of the hall, … though it might be made better—we’ll be looking into that -- it is a very fine hall now.”[14]

Fisher was of course known for his genius in making improvements to high quality sound; it had been his career and his passion. And he remained remain optimistic, even somewhat content, about the hall’s acoustics. The New York Times added that musicians with highly trained ears were not necessarily the best for judging sound: “They know the music so well that listening often becomes an intellectual rather than an aural experience.”

Management consulted the musicians each time there was a plan to renovate the hall, but the musicians felt their recommendations were always ignored. That fall, however, their concerns went beyond the music. Fisher’s rescue effort was announced on the very same day their contract expired. To spend large amounts of money on experiments and alterations in the midst of tense contract negotiations induced bitterness. Adding insult to injury, Ames left on vacation within hours of the orchestra’s concession to continue playing when its contract expired on September 20.

Aymas Ames

Aymas Ames

Ames was an investment banker who devoted much of his time to performing arts management. His association with the orchestra began when he was elected board member of the Philharmonic in 1955; he became president eight years later, and in 1970 became chairman, a post he held for sixteen years. At the same time, he succeeded John D. Rockefeller III as chairman of the board of the Lincoln Center Corporation, taking the reins at a time of desperate crisis.[15]

Ames had been chosen as chairman of the “Committee-of-the-Whole”, when 137 presidents, board chairmen, and managers from seventy-seven principal orchestras across the United States were invited by the nation’s “Big Five” orchestras to New York’s Philharmonic for a two-day conference in November 1969 to discuss the common dilemma.

Together, they examined their operating problems and presented a statement to Congress. For the first time ever, they requested the Federal Government come to their aid, emphasizing the significance of the groups: approximately fourteen hundred different organizations serving a total audience of more than twenty million men, women, and children, who attended on average more than eleven thousand concerts per year. The committee pointed out that orchestras had greatly expanded services despite a lack of financial support, providing operating figures for ninety orchestras, showing total expenses increasing from $28,820,500 in 1963 to $87,090,000 in 1972, and a cash loss of $169,800 in 1963 to $13,222,000 in 1972.[16]

Carlos Moseley

Carlos Moseley

When Ames became chairman of the board in 1970, the Philharmonic underwent a series of administrative changes, the most important of which was the appointment of Carlos Moseley as President. Moseley, who had been the managing director since 1961, would succeed Ames as President and became the first salaried professional full time president of any American orchestra. A native of South Carolina, he first came to the Philharmonic in 1955 as director of press and public relations. Himself a musician, he performed four concerts with the Philharmonic as one of the three soloists in Bach’s C major concerto for three pianos in December 1959, sharing the stage with Leonard Bernstein and David M. Keiser, former chairman and president of the Philharmonic.

Since 1961, Moseley had played a significant role in various developments in the Philharmonic. Under his supervision, the Philharmonic increased its musicians’ contract from thirty-six to fifty-two weeks, relocated from Carnegie Hall to Lincoln Center, started giving free summer park concerts throughout parks in the city, renovated Philharmonic Hall a number of times, and formed the Philharmonic radio network. While Moseley was always a tough negotiator and evidently thought that musicians’ salaries should be kept low, he truly believed that having a fifty-two week season was better for the lives of the musicians in the orchestra than a thirty-six week season. He had good relationships with the players of the orchestra and was, in fact, the only person the musicians trusted. He was liked and was often thought of as a gentleman who had a charming Southern manner.[17]

The general sentiment among the musicians was that Moseley was the only figure in the management they could -- at the very least -- relate to, and that Ames was difficult even to talk to, much less negotiate with. And indeed, negotiations became noticeably more challenging on September 17, after Moseley had a heart attack. Labor and management grew further and further apart.

Rabinowitz demanded that management provide details on Fisher’s gift, pointing out that the Philharmonic's share of the hall’s deficit was $223,000, almost twice the amount of the total cost of fringe benefits, and noting that, with the public announcement, of the gift, the orchestra felt it was now a good time to strike. But management insisted labor’s wagers were already high. After several failed meetings, the musicians voted unanimously on a walkout.


Kuan Cheng Lu is a violinist with the New York Philharmonic, the first Taiwanese classical musician to earn a seat in the organization's 170-year history. He began in the 2004–05 season. Mr. Lu has received numerous awards and scholarships, and recently earned a Doctorate of Musical Arts from The Graduate Center.


Notes

[1] George Seltzer, Music Matters: The Performer and the American Federation of Musicians (Metuchen,
NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1989), 12.

[2] Julie Ayer, More than Meets the Ear: How Symphony Musicians Made Labor History (Minneapolis:
Syren Book Company, 2005).

[3] John H. Mueller, The American Symphony Orchestra (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1951), 41.

[4] Seltzer, Music Matters, 5. John R. Commons, “Types of American Labor Unions,” Quarterly Journal of Economics (1906), 419.

[5] Howard Shanet, Philharmonic: A History of New York’s Orchestra (New York: Doubleday, 1975), 256.

[6] Harold C. Schonberg, “Philharmonic Pact Deadlocked On Wages and Length of Season,” New York
Times, 5 September 1957, 32; John Briggs, “Labor Talks Halt At Philharmonic,” New York Times, 8 October 1957, 39.

[7] Proposal from Local 802 to the New York Philharmonic Board, 15 June 1973, New York Philharmonic
Archives, Orchestra Committee Files, box 912-01; Minutes of the management, 23 July 1973, New York Philharmonic Archives, Orchestra Committee
Files, box 912-01.

[8] Minutes of the Committee, 24 July 1973, New York Philharmonic Archives, Orchestra Committee Files,
Box 912-01.

[9] Minutes of the Committee, 19 September 1973, New York Philharmonic Archives, Orchestra Committee
Files, Box 912-01.

[10] Jerry Tallmer, “It Was Their Idea,” New York Post, 6 October 1973, 22.

[11] Donal Henahan, “Philharmonic Hall Gets Gift of $8 Million,” New York Times, 21 September 1973, 1.

[12] Harold C. Schonberg, “Lincoln Center to Gut Fisher Hall and Start Afresh,” New York Times, 26 March 1975, 85.

[13] The acoustical clouds above the stage were removed, a ceiling was put in, and
wooden objects were installed on the sidewalls. Harold C. Schonberg, “An ‘Era’ Ending for Fisher
Hall: ‘Era’ Ends With Fisher Hall Renovation,” New York Times, 17 May 1976, 59.

[14] Henahan, “Philharmonic Hall,” 1973.

[15] Harold C. Schonberg, “Ames to Be Chairman at Lincoln Center When J.D. Rockefeller Retires in May,”
New York Times, 8 April 1970, 37.

[16] Amyas Ames, “The Silent Spring of Our Symphonies,” The Saturday Review, 28 February 1970, 81-82.

[17] “Philharmonic Gets Full-Time President,” New York Times, 5 March 1970. 42; Orin O’Brien, interviewed by Kuan Cheng Lu, April 2014.