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Home » The Union » Oral History » The Emergence of Classical Players in Local 9-535

Oral History Project

The Emergence of Classical Players in Local 9-535

It is hard to comprehend the significant change which gradually occurred at Local 9-535 in the last fifty years. The bulk of the contracts that officers now negotiate have more to do with the classical music scene than the general business world. This presents a fundamental shift in the organization and can be traced back to both changes in symphonic work here in Boston and to changes in federal labor law – such as the Taft-Hartley Act – that affect the musicians' labor and legal leverage in the realm of commercial music.

Though long established as one of our country's major orchestras, the Boston Symphony Orchestra was the last professional orchestra in the United States to become unionized. Harry Ellis Dickson fills in the picture of how the non-union situation arose and how the transformation to union membership was accomplished.

Harry Ellis Dickson

We were in the Boston Symphony, which was run by the Boston Brahmins, who hated anything that had to do with unions. Remember that, when they heard "union" they heard "communism," they heard rebellion. And so when I joined we were the only American orchestra that was not in the union. There weren't many orchestras then… there were only two other major orchestras, New York and Philadelphia. The Cleveland Orchestra hadn't begun yet; Chicago wasn't even begun yet…

Why weren't we in the union? Because the trustees refused to allow us to be in it. I remember hearing a trustee say, "If you belong to the union, you sort of become a working person, and you're an artist."…

What started us in union was the great Caesar Petrillo… He came to one of our concerts. He was a rough guy, but a man with great idealism, and he fought for his ideals. He made it his job to put the Boston Symphony, which was the only big orchestra not in the union, into the union. And how did he do it? By stopping us from recording. He unionized the recording companies. What did the Boston Symphony do? They started to make their own recordings. Symphony Hall was filled up with machines, recording machines, and they were in there for a few months… Until they discovered that without marketing you couldn't do any (recording). So they took the machines out and for almost a year we had no recordings. Then Petrillo unionized all of the soloists. So for a whole year we couldn't play with Jascha Heifetz, couldn't play with Rubenstein, and none of the great soloists could play with us…

For a year or so, no soloists, no recordings. Koussevitsky didn't like that and Koussevitsky had a friend in Boston, Mr. Carl Dreyfus. Carl Dreyfus was the editor of the Boston American newspaper at that time… He called me on the telephone one day and said, "Can you tell me how I can reach Petrillo? Koussevitsky wants to meet him"… Petrillo came to the Berkshires, very incognito – nobody knew about it – with three body guards… Carl Dreyfus said he came in an armored car with three body guards to Koussevitsky's home up in the Berkshires in the summertime. Two of the trustees were sitting with Koussevitsky and Carl Dreyfus, who was not a trustee but a friend.

And this 'gangster' impressed them so much that they were willing to go along with him. Petrillo knew everything about the Boston Symphony. All the figures, what they made, the deficit, everything. He knew about the whole history of the orchestra. He really impressed the trustees. He was a rough guy, but they were impressed with him. And Koussevitsky said that the BSO must join the union… we had a meeting and the majority voted to join the union. I think we hired Judge Jacob Kaplan, who was a famous judge and lawyer, to be our lawyer. He got in touch with Petrillo, and then things went along and we joined the union. The BSO joined the American Federation of Musicians in 1942.

Doriot Anthony Dwyer

Conductor Erich Leinsdorf was told… especially when he comes to Boston, he mustn't do anything fancy like lose his temper or be disrespectful… the union got very tough with the conductors… and they said none of this or you (the conductors) won't have a job…For all the higher ups like Toscanini… that was the first thing they negotiated… They all changed their philosophy right away or they wouldn't have a job in this country… The board members still don't understand this is an art, but (that ) we do have bodily needs and a standard of living and… we shouldn't have to suffer for art our whole lives… I think sometimes unions go too far in their power. I remember for instance, the recording ban that Petrillo called. But on the other hand, it raised the rates. And we would never have had big rates like that. For years and years we played free television concerts in Boston… Now you have to be paid for it…

For many years the BSO players' committee negotiated the BSO contracts quite independently of the local union. But as contracts became more complex Local 9-535 was more involved in supplementing the work of the players' committee. Outside the BSO, organizations such as the ballet, opera companies, choral groups, and chamber groups also established collective bargaining agreements with Local 9-535. Local 9-535 currently negotiates and maintains over 25 CBAs with local symphonic organizations.

John Corley

I think of the union as being a tremendous area of support for what I do. My primary union activity these days in the Boston Brass Ensemble, I'm one of the conductors. Now the question always comes up almost annually, "we can't afford you anymore." But the union price has gone up, and we have to play according to the scale that we're using, which is (Wage) Scale I for us. And so I have this tremendous big brother behind me supporting why I'm having to charge what we charge, because of the union. It's an umbrella, it's very powerful, very wonderful behind us. And I have yet to have anyone terminate… So we're very busy and they still come around and meet the price, because they need the group… But I'm very happy with the support I'm getting from the union. It's like a hand on my shoulder, you know?

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