Can A Union Walk Away With My Contract?

By Brian Taylor Goldstein, Esq.    

Dear Law and Disorder: 

Is it legal that a presenter can put “strike, lock-out or other labor controversy (including, without limitation, the picketing on the theater by representatives of any labor union having or claiming to have jurisdiction over theater’s employees” into a force majeure clause? I mean, it doesn’t seem fair that an artist that is ready, willing and able to perform should be held “hostage” to a theatre who cannot strike a deal with its stagehands, right? I can’t believe this is a commonly accepted practice. Surely, holding out for a better contract (on either side) is a willful action and the responsibility of those parties to solve so they can fulfil their commitment to the artist, yes?

When you ask “is it legal” do you mean “is it a crime?” No. Assuming you’re not taking out a contract on someone’s life, then anything two parties negotiate and agree to in a contract is perfectly “legal”

Is it common? Absolutely, particularly with professional theaters or any large presenters or theaters who have collective bargaining agreements with various performing arts unions—such as most major orchestras and large concert halls and performing arts centers. In fact, I’ve never seen an engagement contract with a major orchestra or presenter that didn’t have such a clause.

It is appropriate? In my mind, yes. If union stagehands or artists make unreasonable demands and walk out, that’s not always the theater’s or orchestra’s fault. On the other hand, compromise on the party of either party is not always a reasonable possibility at the outset. Neither party should be held “hostage” to the threat of a breach of contract to compel one side or the other to agree hastily to an ill-advised collective bargaining agreement. Regardless, a union or labor issue is almost always a force majeure event. I even include that in my own contracts.

Another consideration is that if the artists you represent are themselves a member of a union—such as a musician who is a member of AFM—then, as a union member, they will be prohibited from crossing the picket line regardless of what the engagement contract says. Indeed, I had a group that had been hired to perform with a major orchestra last year and tried the same approach you a posited—they presented themselves at the stage door claiming that they were ready, willing, and able to perform. However, it turned out they were also AFM members and AFM said that they may be ready and willing, but were not “able.”

Is it fair? That depends on how you feel about the role of unions in the performing arts. I will say this: I have seen just as many artists shoot themselves in the foot as I have presenters try to pass off the losses of their own mismanagement and poor business planning onto their artists. And I know from my own experience that artists are not always their own best representatives in the marketplace. Nonetheless, I, for one, have never believed that the Arts are well served by the same “winner take all” approach that one finds in other industries.

Do you have to agree to it? No. You never have to agree to anything you think is unfair or unreasonable. If the issue is important enough to you and your artist, you can always either walk away or try and negotiate something all parties can accept. Just like a union.


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The purpose of this blog is to provide general advice and guidance, not legal advice. Please consult with an attorney familiar with your specific circumstances, facts, challenges, medications, psychiatric disorders, past-lives, karmic debt, and anything else that may impact your situation before drawing any conclusions, deciding upon a course of action, sending a nasty email, filing a lawsuit, or doing anything rash!

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