What Happened When the Skating Coaches Wanted a Union

A simmering labor dispute involving figure skating coaches at Sky Rink in Manhattan ramped up in recent days after two leaders of a fledgling union were fired as part-time employees.

Chelsea Piers, which owns Sky Rink, said the terminations were not an act of union busting and described them as part of the “normal course of business.” But the coaches say the reason for the firings was to squash the union and scare others away from organizing.

“I can’t say with 100 percent certainty,” said Angela Chiang, one of the coaches who was fired, “but it sure feels like it.”

Ms. Chiang has been coaching at Sky Rink, the picturesque twin sheets of ice overlooking the Hudson River, for 23 years, since she was a senior in high school. A former competitive skater herself, she is considered one of the pre-eminent and most popular coaches in the region, and was one of the few invited by Chelsea Piers to teach a summer camp during the pandemic in 2020.

She said she received notification of her termination via an automated email on April 19, and that it arrived without any explanation.

The next week, Marni Halasa, another longtime coach at Sky Rink who was also involved in the union, was fired. Both coaches said they were told by managers that they could continue coaching as independent contractors, renting ice time from Sky Rink and charging customers directly, at least “for now.”

Ms. Chiang and Ms. Halasa had been among the leaders of an effort to create the NYC Coaches Collective, which they believe would be the first union of figure skating coaches in the world. They do not profile as working-class agitators. But though they can charge upward of $60 for a 30-minute lesson, they earn a modest living, especially for New York. The top tier gross perhaps $40,000 per year, and many of the coaches earn half that.

There are roughly 50 coaches who work in some capacity at Sky Rink; according to organizers, 38 of them voted to join the collective last August. Their only demand is for Chelsea Piers to allow them to negotiate their yearly contracts collectively. The coaches, who meet regularly in nearby apartments and communicate by text and email, sent a letter to Chelsea Piers after the vote asking to be recognized as a bargaining unit. They said they received no response.

Manhattan figure skating coaches generally make less than $40,000 per year, Ms. Chiang said, and some only half that.Credit…Natalie Keyssar for The New York Times

Ria Julien, a lawyer for the coaches, said that the two terminations violated the National Labor Relations Act.

“Chelsea Piers’ decision to retaliate and make examples of prominent members of this group, who are outspoken and well known, is really just an effort to chill other members of the collective,” Ms. Julien said. “This is a violation of their rights, and they will work together to hold Chelsea Piers accountable under the law.”

The lawyer also suggested that Chelsea Piers may have violated state whistle-blower regulations because the coaches had previously complained about health and safety concerns at the rinks after a ventilation unit fell from the rafters onto the ice during a late-night hockey game.

David Tewksbury, one of the owners of Chelsea Piers, called the whistle-blower complaint “absurd” in an email on Tuesday, and said he was surprised by the allegations, adding that the coaches and their lawyers were selling a “bill of goods.”

“Chelsea Piers does not discriminate against employees based on their membership in any protected class and does not retaliate against employees that engage in any form of protected activity,” he wrote. He added that many inactive, part-time employees have been removed from active employment status as a normal business practice, and said the company “is unable to comment on any specific individual termination.”

Matthew Bodie, a law professor at the University of Minnesota who previously worked at the National Labor Relations Board, said the coaches could take their case to the board claiming they were fired for organizing.

In addition to low pay, the coaches at Sky Rink have raised concerns about poor communication by the company that owns the rink.Credit…Natalie Keyssar for The New York Times

“The board gets very upset when that happens, because when you fire union leaders just because they are union leaders, in order to chill an organizing campaign, it’s kind of the worst thing you can do in labor law,” he said.

Manhattan’s Backyard by the Hudson

The Chelsea Piers sports complex opened in 1995, revitalizing the decrepit Hudson River waterfront in Chelsea. The 780,000-square-foot facility offers bowling lanes; basketball, volleyball and pickleball courts; soccer fields; a driving range; gymnastics equipment and more. Sky Rink became one of the gems of the facility and one of the premier rinks in the New York region, enjoyed by legions of figure skaters, hockey teams and recreational skaters.

The figure skating coaches have a multilayered relationship with Sky Rink. They are independent contractors — renting ice time from the company and charging students directly — who also work as part-time employees, teaching at camps, clinics and parties. Many of the coaches, like Ms. Chiang and Ms. Halasa, have worked there for decades. Ms. Halasa began coaching at the original Sky Rink location in Midtown in 1992.

“It’s basically my entire life, my identity, my profession,” Ms. Halasa, 58, said. “To lose all of that would be devastating.”

The coaches say they share a special fondness for Sky Rink, and note that their organizing efforts began in 2011, when they won concessions from management during a disagreement over contract terms. Mr. Tewksbury said recent meetings between management and coaches were evidence that the company was listening.

“To the best of our knowledge, the coaching rates paid at Sky Rink for skating-school work and special-event work are the highest in the tristate region,” he wrote in an email in March.

Chelsea Piers has said that the coaching rates paid at the rink are “the highest in the tristate region.” Credit…Karsten Moran for The New York Times

Figure Skating’s ‘Norma Rae’

In some ways, Ms. Chiang was the inspiration for the unionizing effort. Soft-spoken and measured, she began coaching at 17. Other than babysitting, it is the only job she has ever had.

Now 39, she is one of several coaches to assume a leadership role, but the other members say Ms. Chiang’s steady, dispassionate involvement solidified their resolve. Many of them said they worried that their pro-union activity could jeopardize their ability to work at Sky Rink in the future.

“Angela is our Norma Rae,” Amy Engeler, a coach at Sky Rink for 28 years, said, referring to the character played by Sally Field in the 1979 film based on the organizing efforts of Crystal Lee Sutton. “But she’s no firebrand. She’s very quiet and thoughtful, so when she was willing to take a stand, it made us all take a look.”

The collective intensified its organizing efforts last summer, after the company presented the coaches with a new contract that the coaches said cost them money. They said that after they raised objections, the company demanded that each coach sign the new contract by noon on Sept. 4 — Labor Day. The coaches felt compelled to sign, but they each added a line after the signature: “Member, NYC Coaches Collective.” It was a symbolic gesture, to be sure, but Ms. Chiang said it felt empowering. Six months later, Ms. Chiang received the email informing her that she was no longer a Sky Rink employee.

Ms. Halasa was told about her dismissal not long after she handed out Coaches Collective fliers at a gala dinner at Chelsea Piers. The dinner was hosted by North Star Fund, a social justice organization. Security guards tried to stop Ms. Halasa, but Jennifer Ching, the fund’s executive director, who had granted her permission to distribute the cards, intervened. Chelsea Piers employees later told Ms. Halasa that they were concerned that the fliers were related to war protests.

Nine days later, she was fired. The reason given, she said, related to a letter she had written on behalf of a student’s mother, who was going through a divorce. The letter angered the student’s father, who complained to Sky Rink. Ms. Halasa said that management discussed the letter with her in February and told her at the time it was not actionable. She, too, believes she was fired for her role in the union.

“I’ve been there over 30 years, and they rarely fire coaches,” she said. “Then I get fired days after I hand out fliers at the North Star dinner, and they say it’s for a reason they always said was inconsequential. It doesn’t add up.”

Ms. Chiang said she initially thought the email terminating her employment was a mistake and reached out to a manager for clarification. When they connected the next day, she was coaching a student at a competition in Connecticut.

Ms. Chiang said she was told the reason for the termination was that she did not teach 10 hours of classes per month, a new minimum threshold that was established on March 23, a little more than a week before her dismissal took effect (the emailed notice of termination was dated April 1, though she did not receive it until April 19).

Although she teaches few class hours during the school year, she said that tends to increase to about 60 hours a month in the summer. Part-time work for the rink both supplements her income and is a good way to cultivate private clients. Without it, she is now worried she will not be able to pay rent.

Still able to teach private lessons for now, she said it has been awkward returning to Sky Rink even though she has spent most of her life skating and coaching there.

“It’s a weird situation where you get terminated, but you are still working there,” she said. “It’s really awkward and uncomfortable. At times I felt like this must be what it feels like to lose your home in a tornado or something. I have memories of this place, and it’s not really mine anymore.”

Back to top button