Musicians union divides — and conquers? — itself

Bill Callanan and Keith Nelson have been Las Vegans for more than 40 years. But surprisingly, their paths haven’t overlapped that much.

Over the years, Nelson has played bass for Donna Summer and Diana Ross. Callanan conducted “Lido de Paris” and “Enter the Night.” But since 1995 he has played songs such as “Twelth Street Rag” on his keyboards while clowns and acrobats perform on the Circus Circus midway.

But now the two find themselves both united and divided by the same cause.

Callanan started a bitter division — “a revolution,” he calls it — among the 611 members of the Las Vegas Musicians Union when he filed charges against its president, Frank Leone. He says Leone didn’t fight hard enough to get a better contract for the four musicians who accompany the Circus Circus midway acts.

“You don’t just sit there and sign a contract giving away the whole store,” he says. “It’s outrageous.”

The parent union, the American Federation of Musicians, agreed. Or rather — and here’s where it gets complicated — it agreed the four musicians didn’t get to be part of a ballot ratification vote. Nelson says the guilty finding came with no punitive consequences and was more of an “admonishment.”

Regardless, the guilty decision was upheld on appeal and Leone had to step down as president, at least until November’s election. Nelson had to step up from his secretary-treasurer role and, reluctantly, he says, become interim president.

“Frank made this thing his life,” Nelson says.

But him? He’s a killer bass player. But killer instinct? Those on either side of the feud agree Nelson might be too nice of a guy for the job. Doesn’t go into a room looking for an enemy. Thinks the best of people and all that.

Leone, no stranger to hard-fought contract negotiatons, is running for president again. And in the meantime, he continues to negotiate union contracts for some of the larger shows on the Strip.

“I am so mad I can’t believe it,” says Callanan, a 47-year member.

Nelson can believe it. He spent the evening of Oct. 2 playing bass with Usher and David Foster in a Denver benefit. A few hours and not much sleep later, he was back in town, and found out just how mad some members are when he tried to preside over a heated gathering that erupted into a shouting match.

“I’m not thinking I’m out to get ambushed,” Nelson remembers thinking. “Respect and honor each other. We’ll get through it. These people are my friends.”

Instead? “I got stung.”

While most people see Nelson as the nice guy caught in the middle and trying to play peacemaker, Callanan isn’t happy that Nelson’s son ended up with one of the Circus Circus jobs, which was reclassified from keyboard player to “digital audio entertainer.” Nelson says his son took it only after 14 members turned it down.

Nelson says he and Callanan are on the same side of the Circus Circus fight. In many ways it echoes the big strike of 1989, which effectively broke the back of the once-powerful union. This time, the giant MGM Resorts International played hardball on the contracts of the four midway musicians, resulting in what Callanan calls a 43 percent pay cut and a week less of paid vacation.

As in 1989, it’s argued that musical styles have changed and even more music is electronically generated now. The musicians’ counter-proposal was “Use us more, not less.” Play for the whole shift, not just when the midway acts are onstage. Reopen the old carousel lounge and let them play there, too.

But no dice. Why would the big corporation be so entrenched? Callanan thinks it’s precedent. He predicts the next contract for “ShowStoppers” musicians at Wynn Las Vegas will end up with “the same scale Circus Circus got … . It’s going to happen down the line.”

“By (Leone) doing what he did, the future of Las Vegas musicians is destroyed,” Callanan says. “Because in all future negotiations, they’ve got a new bottom line.”

Nelson agrees the larger fight is along these lines. “We’ve got to get our folks to focus in the right direction, not against each other,” he says.

Or, as he wrote in a membership newsletter, “United, we are strong and effective. Divided, we are in a race to the bottom.”

But divided they will stand at least until next month’s election, which pits Leone against “new guard” candidate Jack Gaughan, past conductor for “Phantom” and “Mamma Mia!”

Leone’s eligibility is at the heart of the infighting, even though Nelson says the union consulted a labor attorney, who backed up the union election committee’s decision to let him run.

“We found out one of our AFM bylaws wasn’t constitutional,” Nelson says. “It’s out of step with federal code” and the law’s intention is that only criminal malfeasance should force a president to step down.

“The day after he gets thrown out of the union he decides the bylaws are illegal. Like he had an epiphany,” Callanan says.

Regardless, the rules say the election committee’s findings stand in lieu of an appeal. And no one has appealed, Nelson says.

And Leone remains the “negotiator of record” for Las Vegas productions including “ShowStoppers,” at the request of its musical director Dave Loeb, with the union citing the “sensitivity of the negotiations they are involved in.”

And so the union heads for a Nov. 21 vote that could change its long-term direction. Nelson knows only one thing for sure. In January, when the new president is sworn in, he is happy it will be someone besides him.

— Read more from Mike Weatherford at reviewjournal.com. Contact him at mweatherford@reviewjournal.com.

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