Today, as this is being written, is the 100th anniversary of the sinking of RMS Titanic, an event which was a catalogue of small failures leading to giant consequences. All but forgotten today is one of the most frustrating episodes of that event– the exclusion from survivor benefits of the families of the eight members of Titanic’s two bands.
Normally, bands aboard passenger ships in 1912 were hired by the shipping line, in the case of the Titanic the White Star Line, a British corporation with its operational headquarters in lower Manhattan. Once hired, the bandsmen became non-seamen members of the crew. In hiring bands for the much-celebrated maiden voyage, the White Star Line was unwilling to pay union scale.
The musicians’ union would not allow members to play as crew members for less than union scale. However, a compromise was reached with the White Star line to permit the band members to be listed as second class passengers and be paid as “independent contractors,” even though they were berthed in crew quarters. Today, that transparent end-run around the obvious would not be allowed to stand, but things were different in 1912.
After the collision, the band members were requested to remain on deck playing light dance music to calm those aboard. They continued to play until the ship’s list prohibited them from further performance. None attempted to get into a lifeboat and none survived. (There is no solid evidence that “Nearer My God to Thee” was ever played, but one of the last two tunes was said to be a rag-time piece, perhaps by Scott Joplin.)
All other family members of the deceased crew received some form of survivor benefits but the band members, alone, received, officially, nothing. As “independent contractors,” the band members were not covered by the British Workers Compensation Act, a result upheld by a British court.
The families might have received a better result in New York, but the state was in the short period between the court invalidation of its first comp law and the official passage of its second. Everything on the Titanic, it seemed, was dogged by evil timing.
However, the plight of the families of the bandsmen received great publicity in the US and the UK. Edward Elgar (of “Pomp and Circumstance” fame) presided over a memorial concert, as did John Philip Sousa. The fraternity of professional musicians rallied and, eventually, a charitable trust was established for the benefit of the families, who received about what the families of other crew members had received. (The band members were paid about $40 per month and benefits which was hardly sufficient.)
In some ways, the lessons of the Titanic were on the same order as the Triangle Shirtwaist tragedy two years earlier. The complicity of the musicians’ union in the inexcusable fiction that the band members were independent contractors led to much unneeded pain. The failure of a court to apply an equitable reformation of the relationship was also out of line with the growing opinions present even in 1912 .[WCx]
To the crew and passengers of RMS Titanic – “Requiescat in Pace.”
Author: Attorney Theodore Ronca is a practicing lawyer from Aquebogue, NY. He is a frequent writer and speaker, and has represented employers in the areas of workers’ compensation, Social Security disability, employee disability plans and subrogation for over 30 years. Attorney Ronca can be reached at 631-722-2100. email@example.com
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