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Home » Organizing » Musicians of Chicago’s Teatro Zinzanni Win Union Recognition During COVID

Musicians of Chicago’s Teatro Zinzanni Win Union Recognition During COVID

  -  AFM Organizing and Education Division Director

In March, musicians performing with the Chicago Teatro Zinzanni dinner-and-show production successfully voted to form a union, with official results of the election certified on May 28.

Teatro Zinzanni arrived in Chicago as a “proudly non-union” company. “When we were hired, we were told that Teatro Zinzanni worked hard to keep the union out,” says violinist Olya Prohorova.

As Local 10-208 President Terryl Jares says, “We knew this show’s other productions had no union contracts for musicians, although one of our main employers—Broadway in Chicago—was marketing the show here. Chicago musicians have fought hard to secure fair standards in our Broadway in Chicago contract, and now that employer was touting a non-union show. We didn’t think that was right.”

When the overtures from Local 10-208 to Teatro Zinzanni management fell on deaf ears, it was clear a grassroots musician-led campaign was needed.

“While we all loved playing the show, we were getting called for a lot of unpaid rehearsals—sometimes with only a few hours’ notice,” says Prohorova. To make matters worse, musicians would arrive only to find no one prepared, or waiting around for hours until they were needed. “It is one thing to give short notice, but then to have nothing for us to do when we arrived, it just wasn’t respectful of our time,” Prohorova continued. The show itself is taxing enough on musicians, who are required to play nearly constantly during the three-hour show, while other performers can stagger their breaks.

“At first, we tried to resolve these issues on our own,” says the show’s bassist, John Elmquist. “We just wanted to be heard. But in all our attempts to have these problems addressed, management just blew us off.”

Musicians reached out to Chicago Theater Musicians Association (TMA) President and Local 10-208 member Heather Boehm, who provided invaluable on-the-ground help throughout the campaign. “Our local and our TMA chapter have fought hard to establish fair wages and standards for Chicago theater musicians, and we can’t leave anyone behind,” says Boehm. “An injury to one is an injury to all.” Local 10-208’s counsel, Kevin Case, offered much-needed legal guidance along the way.

Things came to a head in early February, when a scheduled (unpaid) three-hour rehearsal was suddenly changed to a six-and-a-half hour call—with no scheduled break for the band. “That was kind of the last straw for us, and really showed they weren’t listening. It became clear that coming together as a union was the only way to have a real voice in our work lives,” says Elmquist.

To make matters worse, the management expected musicians to be exclusive employees, and not take other jobs. “Like a lot of musicians, I do part time work outside of music,” explains Prohorova. “I would have to turn down paid hours working my part-time job to report to unpaid rehearsals. That isn’t fair.”

The management’s response to the union drive was a familiar tune: They held a mandatory meeting where they hit all the anti-union chords. “We were told everything in the playbook,” says Prohorova. “They said this was a family business, that ‘the union’ was an outside party that just wanted our dues money, and that ‘union rules’ would get in the way of the creative process. They even explained that, ‘This was how we always did things,’ as if that made it right somehow.”

“If the management had just listened and done something to address our needs, we may not have had the fuel to win the union recognition campaign,” says Elmquist. “But by totally dismissing our issues, they actually helped fire up our campaign.” As the saying goes, a bad boss is the best organizer.

“That these talented musicians showed such strength and unity amid a pandemic, with an anti-union employer, was an inspiration to all Chicago musicians,” says Boehm.

The election process was complicated by the onset of COVID-19 mid-vote. While an in-person vote took place before the pandemic shut down Chicago, several bargaining unit musicians were voting by mail from other states. The bargaining unit comprised nine musicians—five regular band members and four part-time musicians who qualified to vote. Mail ballots were lost—twice—in the process and had to be re-sent a total of three times. Despite delays, musicians’ support for unionizing stayed strong.  

“We look forward to welcoming the Teatro Zinzanni musicians to our Local 10-208 community, and to ensuring they have a meaningful voice in their workplace through their first union contract negotiation,” says Jares.

These sentiments were echoed by Boehm: “Chicago TMA congratulates the Teatro Zinzanni musicians on achieving the respect in their workplace that they deserve.”