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Arbitration Victory for Houston Ballet Orchestra

The musicians of the Houston Ballet Orchestra, members of Local 65-699 (Houston, TX), recently prevailed in arbitration of a grievance filed against the Houston Ballet Foundation (HBF) when it misapplied the CBA’s force majeure clause in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. The victory carried with it a payday for musicians totaling nearly $150,000 for services guaranteed by the agreement.

When Hurricane Harvey flooded the Wortham Theater in August 2017, HBF chose to put on a season in different venues across Houston, taking all shows on a “Hometown Tour.” While many of the orchestra’s services were preserved, the musicians were offered only 91 services of their minimum 116-service guarantee. HBF claimed it was not obligated to hire the orchestra or pay the musicians for the minimum service guarantee due to the Wortham Theater being closed for the season.

The grievance was filed January 8, 2018 by Local 65-699 on behalf of the musicians, many of whom suffered other losses as a result of the hurricane. The grievance alleged that the force majeure clause was not theater specific and only covered cancelled rehearsals and performances. The season was rescheduled, not cancelled, and in the end, the Houston Ballet put on more than enough performances to satisfy the minimum service guarantee.

When the parties could not come to a resolution through the grievance process, it was submitted to arbitration before a neutral arbitrator who held a hearing May 4. On July 29, the arbitrator issued his decision, writing that “[the] Ballet, having admirably rescued its season, was obligated to satisfy the minimum service guarantee for 2017-2018. It did not. Accordingly … the grievance is sustained.” The arbitrator ordered payment to the musicians for 14 guaranteed services that were not offered or paid by the HBF.

The Orchestra Committee, led by chair Amanda Swain, worked closely with Local 65-699 President Lovie Smith-Wright and the local’s attorney, Pat Flynn. Through their collaboration they were able to present a solid case that led to this major union victory.