Indivisible, with Acknowledgement, and Justice for All


Victory for Theater Musicians north of Washington, DC!

Since 1938, the Olney Theatre Center for the Arts has elicited rave reviews and contributed greatly to the culture of the Washington Metropolitan Area. Over the years, the theater agreed to union contracts for artists onstage and behind the scenes.

However, not the musicians in the orchestra pit. Unfortunately, the theater has a history of under-compensating them while subjecting them to questionable and potentially unsafe working conditions. Also, these musicians have been considered independent contractors and not employees of the theater, meaning that they’ve been denied basic benefits.

Until now. The musicians of Olney have insisted that they weren’t being treated fairly. They took a stand, they organized, and as of Spring 2016, there is now an agreement between the Olney Theatre Center and the Musicians Union, the DC Federation of Musicians, Local 161-710.

I encourage you to learn more in articles such as those in the Washington Post and the International Musician . There, you can learn more about the history of musicians at Olney and get a glimpse at the process that led to this agreement.

What I’d love to showcase here are things that haven’t received as much attention. What did it take for these audacious musicians to accomplish their goal? What character traits did they possess? And why was it so important to unionize at Olney in the first place?

Assembling a Team

The committee of Olney musicians who led the movement for their colleagues were experienced and intelligent people. They were knowledgeable in past organizing efforts, and they understood how to navigate the legal procedures at play. Perhaps most importantly, they were willing to courageously risk their livelihoods so that present and future musicians could work for proper pay and working conditions.

The committee had a robust working relationship.

They were were creative problem-solvers and maintained a strong sense of collegiality. Even during the most difficult moments, they knew how to interact with one another in a way that helped keep their efforts moving in a positive direction. They were also effective communicators; keeping everybody on the same page was a priority.

In the end, the Olney musicians showed strength and bravery. It takes courage to stand up for what is right, and the tenacity they showed is downright inspirational.

Support from the Outside

While the Olney musicians were indeed the ones who had to forge their own path, they were not without help.

They credit their union for giving them guidance and perspective. Local 161-710 President Ed Malaga as well as directors from the International office of the American Federation of Musicians provided much assistance. They were incredibly savvy resources, both with internal organizing and traversing this nuanced process.

It’s also important to note the help from other unions. The Actors Equity Association, the union of the actors at Olney, was a very strong advocate for its colleagues in the orchestra pit. The Metropolitan Washington Council of the AFL-CIO helped the musicians learn which elected officials they could rely on for support, and moreover, how to connect with these officials.

One such politician was Maryland State Senator Karen Montgomery, whose district included Olney. Senator Montgomery has a long-standing history with the Olney Theatre Center as both as a supporter and a high-level administrator. She diplomatically advocated in favor of the organizing efforts, and this ended up being crucial in arriving at an agreement.

Why was Unionizing Necessary?

It is a big time commitment. It takes careful strategizing. It’s a leap of faith. Why put yourself through all of this? The truth is, there has never been a more urgent time to come together and organize for protections in the workplace.

Over the past two decades, the amount of work has dwindled. Musicians who used to enjoy full schedules now have a hard time finding work.  Pension contributions made today will provide significantly less money at retirement than pension contributions made in the past. And in many areas, the cost of living seems to go nowhere but up.

Employers often fail to acknowledge musicians as employees, and this is a tremendous hardship. When this happens, basic benefits (pension, handling payroll taxes, etc.) are too often denied; this creates an unjust burden that musicians all across the country face. The relationship between musicians and management at Olney truly should have always been considered an Employer/Employee Relationship, and it is now recognized as such.

Two identical hands shaking. Identical, striped cuffs. The hand on the left has a mole at the bottom of the third finger. $1 bills are in the background. The photo is black-and-white.

I’d like to add one more observation here. Diplomacy seems to be a big piece of the puzzle. Not just in the organizing process, but also at the bargaining table.

Some say that a good compromise is reached when neither side is happy. However, it seems to me that in recent years, the good compromises have been reached when both sides acted respectfully and empathetically in good faith.

So, are you a member of a non-union musical entity? Do you feel that your employers neglect to carry out their duties in good faith? Be inspired by this success of the musicians in Olney; their victory can be yours, too!

About Doug Rosenthal

No one told Douglas Rosenthal to give up playing music. Not even his patient siblings, who endured many early-morning practice sessions; even they encouraged their brother to follow his passion. As the years passed, that passion evolved from simply playing music to advocating for music, musicians, and music-lovers. Douglas is based in Washington, DC. He is the Assistant Principal Trombonist of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra/Washington National Opera Orchestra. He currently makes his home on Capitol Hill in DC with a pug named Jake, who serves as a constant reminder to relax, eat well, and sleep plentifully.

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