On November 16, the part-time faculty of the New School in New York City, including the conservatory under its auspices, the Mannes School of Music, went on strike. A whopping 87 percent of the professors at the New School, which costs upwards of $60,000 per year to attend, fall under the category of part-time teachers. At Mannes, which can draw from one of the world’s richest pools of classical music freelancers, the number appears to be even higher. In The New Republic, inequality reporter Alissa Quart wrote of the strike, “We’re witnessing the black-turtleneck-worker uprising,” and while classical musicians generally prefer tuxes to turtlenecks, the labor movement sweeping the United States has clearly reached their corner of the cultural sector, too. 

On Tuesday, I spoke with Mary Barto, a flutist who has performed with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic. She teaches at Mannes in the Extension and Preparatory Divisions (as distinct from the conservatory for college-aged students), as well as at Columbia University, Fordham University, and Hunter College, and is a member of ACT-UAW Local 7902. We talked about her reasons for striking, the mood on the picket line, and the breaking results of the most recent union vote on the New School’s contract offer.  

Mary Barto • Photo Courtesy of Mary Barto 

VAN: How long have you been teaching at the Mannes School of Music?

Mary Barto: I’ve been there for 41 years.

And that’s one of several places that you teach, right?

Yes. I’m a musician: It’s basically not possible to teach at one institution, certainly not at Mannes, which is the music division of the New School university. Our average salary is about 30 percent lower than all the other divisions. It’s not possible to teach [at one school] and make a decent living. We do have some high-profile, fabulous, world-renowned professionals who attract people from all over the world, and they are able to get a huge studio. But barring that, it’s really not possible to make a living wage at the New School as a part-time faculty member.

You studied flute with legendary teacher and former New York Philharmonic principal flute Julius Baker, and you played with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. You’re obviously qualified for your work as well. 

Correct. But that is really not respected by the New School. As long as I’ve been there, I had no idea that our basic salary was so much lower than the rest of the university. We actually meet less than other sections of the university teaching other subjects. For the rest of the university, the average [number of] contact hours for a particular course is 90 hours. Ours is 15 hours. This is not what happens in a real conservatory: Juilliard, Peabody, Oberlin, Rice, Colburn. You don’t see that kind of thing happening [there].

How have the negotiations with the university been going? 

I was quite shocked from the beginning: When we finally got some input back from the New School, it took them forever to make counterproposals to our proposals. Just forever. 

They started out with a person that was newly hired, that was going to be their head negotiator. I presume it became obvious to the New School that this person was not getting where they wanted to go. [Then] they hired a union busting law firm. And that law firm would make what should have been a counterproposal. Bargaining is a back-and-forth, that’s how you reach something that is agreeable to both entities. Within a very short time, this new lawyer made [what they said was their] final offer. Like, “Wait a minute, this is the first time or the second time you’ve gotten back to us. What do you mean it’s your final offer?” That jams the door shut. It’s not dialogue. 

This is the third contract at the New School that I’ve worked on; I’ve also done contracts in other institutions. I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s denigrating. 

What’s the most important thing when you’re picking out a music school? If you’re a serious young musician, it’s your individual lesson teacher. That’s what you look at first; it’s why you come. Mannes’s proposal said that faculty teaching only private lessons would not be eligible for health care.

That was reported elsewhere, too. Do you have any sense of why? 

I think because the dean that we have wants to look good to the administration. He felt that he could come forward with a lot of specific things for his division and say, “Look how much money I’m going to save you to justify my inflated salary.” 

On Tuesday, you voted on the final offer from the New School. What did you think of the offer? 

One of the important things is that the New School attacks faculty a lot. There are a lot of disciplinary allegations brought against faculty. We have a grievance and arbitration procedure. Of course, an arbitrator is an independent, third-party person who is selected by both sides, usually from the American Arbitration Association (AAA). Then we have the opportunity to have the procedure evaluated by someone who is impartial. The New School’s proposal has stripped faculty of the current right to arbitrate [and submit grievances]. Why anybody would want to do that is beyond me. 

In Mannes’s initial proposal, they wanted to strip [teachers who only give private lessons] of health coverage. They came back with a proposal that current faculty would be grandfathered into [health coverage]. But all new faculty would not have health coverage. I don’t even know how people come up with things that are this cruel. Health care is a primary concern of every worker. In this last, final offer, there’s a procedure called a “look back” to qualify for health insurance. You have to have taught X number of courses prior to this, and then there’s the “look forward” process, which is what you’re scheduled to teach in the coming semester. In the “look forward,” the New School eliminated [professors teaching only] private music lessons [from health coverage]. It wasn’t in there. In other words, although the “look back” did count private music lessons, the “look forward” did not. Again, you excluded all your private music teachers. 

We were told that was a clerical error. I mean, seriously, you leave out an entire group of people? And when we objected to the proposal eliminating individual lesson teachers [from health coverage], the lawyer said to us, “Well, that would only eliminate about 60 people, a very small subset of the entire faculty.” They see us as numbers, not people. Nothing could have been more telling than that.

And then, they will not budge on the fact that when new faculty reach their eighth semester, they can fire them without cause. And they do. It is a constant revolving door. I feel so sorry for young [faculty members] who come into the university thinking they’re going to build a life here. They are fired at the last possible minute, and the New School can do that without cause. 

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What about pay? According to media reports, the New School is currently offering a seven percent increase in the first year, then 2.5 percent for the following four years.

Our base salary is some $70 per hour, as opposed to other parts of the university, where the average is about $130 an hour. Somebody might say, “$130, that’s incredible!” But this includes hundreds of hours of preparation, grading, and writing recommendations. I stopped counting up how many hours I spent prepping my chamber music class when I got to 53. Some of the faculty who teach classes that meet three times a week stopped when they got to 150. This is not an accurate hourly wage; it includes a huge amount of outside time. 

This contract starts from the expiration of the previous contract in August 2019. We haven’t had a salary increase since 2018. This is not a five-year contract, it’s a nine-year contract. There’s that seven percent [increase], but we currently have between six and eight percent inflation. Then you take 2.5 percent going forward, but you didn’t have anything for four years.

Sanjay Reddy, the Chair of Economics at the New School, has been very helpful. He put together some numbers for us. I think you might be interested in knowing that management employees’ salaries rose by 45 percent between 2014 and 2019 [Reddy notes that this number is mainly accounted for by increased hiring of management staff. Average management salaries rose by around four percent. —Ed.] Executive leadership compensation rose by 19 percent during that time; the total growth and expenditures of the total growth in revenues was 17 percent. And the total increase in tuition to the students was 18 percent. The kids are paying, and it’s not going to part-time faculty: part-time faculty experienced saw their salaries fall 11 percent between 2014 and 2019. 

The part-time faculty numbers are very high at the New School overall: around 87 percent. What are the numbers like at the Mannes School of Music? 

I would guess it’s higher than that at Mannes.

In a later email, Barto added, “Doing a headcount of faculty, there seems to be 100 part-time faculty members in the Preparatory Division with one full-time member. In the college there appears to be 193 part-time faculty and eight full-time” faculty members. That means approximately 96 percent of Mannes college faculty is part-time.

Have you been picketing? 

I’ve been picketing avidly. We have been so gratified by the support from our students, they have been 100 percent behind us and have been picketing with us. I loved one of their signs that said, “Their working conditions are our learning conditions.” One of the wonderful piano teachers brought her dog to the picket line with a little banner on him about union busting. We’ve had huge turnout and support from other unions. 

What do you hope to achieve in the vote on the final offer from the New School on Tuesday? 

The New School has made it very clear that if there is a “no” vote, they will still implement the contract as they presented it. I can’t believe that the law is constructed like this, but it is—they have the right to do that. And at that point, we would have to stop our strike, because as most contracts do, they have a no strike, no lockout clause. That contract would then be in effect and any faculty member striking would be in violation of their contract, and they could be subjected to firing.

It’s not our contract. We’ll never call it our contract. It’s their contract. But what we’re hoping is that they have a modicum of caring about what they look like in front of the rest of the world. That if there is a no vote, that we can get them back to the bargaining table. That’s all we’re trying to do.

There’s a reason why unionization across the United States is burgeoning, because if you don’t have a union, you’re dead. ¶

On Thursday, Barto provided the results of the union vote on the “final offer”: 1,821 no votes and 88 yes votes. She said that the New School president has indicated the university’s willingness to continue meeting with the union, though it is unclear whether the New School is considering further concessions.

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… has been an editor at VAN since 2015. He’s the author of The Life and Music of Gérard Grisey: Delirium and Form (Boydell & Brewer), and his journalism has appeared in The Baffler, the New York...