Labor Day - What Does it Have to do With Us?
It’s a memorial on Des Plaines St., namesake to one of our sister opera companies in Chicago and a busy brewpub in the West loop. Chicago Lyric Opera is not far, and the Chicago Federation of Musicians office is in the heart of it. I am talking about Haymarket Square, the location of one of Chicago’s most important historical events and a particularly meaningful one for all union members. What happened here in 1886 helped shift public opinion toward a more sympathetic view of worker’s rights, and a national holiday celebrating the American worker – Labor Day – was born.
Echoes of the continuing struggle reverberate for us still. Jim Berkenstock, Lyric Opera’s Principal bassoon, relates what working conditions were like at Lyric Opera in the 70’s. “It was most normal to have a rehearsal and a performance on the same day (of two different operas) for days on end. Since performances started at 8:00 pm. in those days, we frequently wouldn’t get home until after midnight. It might be normal to get to bed at 2:00 a.m. and have to get up at 7:00 a.m. in order to be back downtown for a morning rehearsal. Several days of this in a row were common, and the resulting fatigue was palpable.
“One season in particular (1973) was especially noteworthy. Without the current restrictions in our contract, Lyric decided to have a dress rehearsal of Carmen in the afternoon and to invite an audience. Carmen is a four- hour opera as we performed it in those days. The only problem was, we had to play Wagner’s Siegfried that evening, an opera that lasts well over five hours. That same season, we played an afternoon La Boheme dress rehearsal and did Der Rosenkavalier in the evening.”
If the prevailing motive is profit, inevitably the rights and needs of workers are jeopardized – why pay more for healthier conditions, better hours, more carefully trained workers? Why not try to do more with less? We in the arts are not immune to this way of thinking today. As Jim adds, “Our current contract is a far cry from the old days, but it is still involves a schedule that takes a great deal of fortitude, physical reserve, and musical resourcefulness in order to survive and perform at the consistently high level expected of us.” We are all familiar with the challenge.
So this year, let us take a moment from our Labor Day cookouts and raise a glass (perhaps American-made craft beer) to think about Haymarket, thank those brave men and women who helped establish this national tribute to the American worker, and pledge to continue the good fight they began.