Seattle Press
Civic Light Opera Update
An Interview with Striker Max Baldonado
To what extent would you go to make your voice heard? For Max Baldonado, a musician who plays flute, clarinet and saxophone for the Civic Light Opera (CLO), the answer is clear. Baldonado has been standing outside the theater holding a picket sign and wondering if he'll have food on the table. He and a group of musicians decided early this year to go on strike. "It was a decision we made democratically with musicians who have been faithful and worked here year after year," says Baldonado. According to Baldonado, three-fourths of the musicians decided that they wanted the right to have the union represent them, especially in talks about working conditions. "For example we're saying, 'I'd love to play for you four hours a day, but if I did that, my lips would be bleeding,'" says Baldonado. "That's not really practical. I need two 15-minute breaks. I paid $10,000 for my education and training, and I should have a say." There are other issues of concern, too. "During one rehearsal," he says, "a light fixture fell from the ceiling and came crashing down onto the stage. Nobody got hurt, but the point is, that's a basic issue when you go into any job." Baldonado says that the musicians tried to talk to management about these issues but felt that the door was shut in their faces. He claims that after five months, talks had reached a dead end. "That's when we decided that we should go on strike," he says. Not everyone agreed, however. Some musicians continued to play for CLO.

The strike has been hard for Baldonado. "This last Christmas was a little lean," he says. "There was some fear about getting through the year. But the hardest thing about being on strike is that sometimes the people that you've been friends with can't be your friends anymore. People start to divide. That is very difficult, because after you spend 5 or 10 years with people, suddenly there is friction. That's the hardest part, the relationships that have been torn." Being on the picket line is rough for Baldonado too. "There have been several occasions when I have stood outside the theater with my picket sign and people would say, 'Get away from me.' Sometimes they'd say, 'You're stupid,' and they would insult me. That's hard to take every night." But, Baldonado says, he's gained friends too. "I teach music at a couple of schools on the East side. So I have to drive there very early in the morning. One day, my car died on the 520 bridge. I sat there thinking, oh boy, I've got to get to work to make money to live and to eat and to feed the dog. Well, within two days, the union president lent me her second car. "I think there's a little fear when you decide to be political and take a stand. But there are always people who are willing to back you up and say, 'We know you're going through a hard time and can't afford to get your car fixed. Why don't you borrow this car? You'll get through the rest of the school year, and we'll worry about it later.'"

With all these difficulties, why doesn't Baldonado just play for someone else? "It's our right as American citizens to organize," he says in answer. "We're not going to go away. We have rights as Americans to congregate and to collectively put our energies together and have a say in our working conditions." Baldonado's dedication to music is very strong now, but it didn't start out that way. "To be honest," he says, "I started playing in the fourth grade because I had a crush on a girl who played the clarinet. I wanted to impress her." Baldonado found that he was very good at music, but when he was an adult he quit playing and worked in hotels instead. Then when he was 27 he had an epiphany. He realized he wasn't happy away from music. "I hated wearing ties. I hated wearing suits. I made the decision that I've got to change this. I was kind of old in some ways. But when you decide--no matter when--it's the right time." While Baldonado is not happy to be on strike, he says he would not change his convictions. "Sometimes you think, maybe I should. Maybe I should just go the other way to make money. But ultimately you have to look inside and say, what's important? What's my purpose? Where am I going to be tomorrow and how are my actions today going to affect how I see myself?" If there is one thing that Baldonado would like to say to the CLO it's that they should start talking again. "They basically have shut the door on me and my fellow workers," he says. "This has caused us to rage and to roar, and to say no, you can't do this. We workers have made you money. Our professional services have kept you alive. So talk to us. Communication is what's going to resolve this situation." Baldonado wants the strike to end so he can go back to doing what he loves. Out of this strike, he is hoping, "no matter what the outcome, that the artistic community can come back together."

Karin Dahl, Whitney Higgins, Elisha Maidan, Brad Marsh and Catherine Sewell are sixth-grade students at Seattle Academy of Arts and Sciences.