By Karen Fisher
The week of March 9, 2020 began the most extraordinary and surreal time for our country since 9/11. The precautions taken to stem the spread of COVID-19 extended to the widespread closure of nearly every arts institution in the country. When news of the cancellations started coming in to Local 802, we immediately began working to mitigate the financial damage to our members. We gathered resources and reached out to our employers, many of whom stepped up and are compensating musicians for lost work and health benefits. Nevertheless, I have great concern for our freelance community and for the financial viability of our orchestras. The world will certainly look different when this is over, but musicians are resilient and resourceful. The human impulse to create music together will never disappear.
As the bad news spread, I remained in contact with our orchestra committees, all of whom have been incredibly helpful, understanding and proactive. Besides fielding questions from colleagues and helping me disseminate information quickly and efficiently, they have been busy behind the scenes advocating for their orchestra members’ health and wellbeing. I could not be more grateful for their wisdom and responsiveness.
Even during normal times, the idea of serving on an orchestra committee may seem daunting to the uninitiated. Certainly, committee work is a heavy responsibility. Decisions made in committee impact not just us personally, but also our colleagues and sometimes the entire musical community. This first in a series of essays will attempt to clarify what committee work involves in the hope that newer committee members will gain an understanding of what to expect when asked to serve.
Why do we need committees?
Simply, committee members are advocates for their colleagues and are the rank-and-file representatives of the union in the workplace. Since union reps or officers cannot be present on every job, committees must, from time to time, become intermediaries when conflict or contract questions arise and be responsible for making quick decisions. All complaints, problems, grievances and questions funnel through the committee to the union and then — if appropriate — to management. For this reason, committee members must have a good understanding of the terms of their contract and have institutional knowledge of the orchestra, its mission and its bargaining history. Most importantly, committees must be actively involved and present in contract negotiations to ensure that your union is fairly representing the interests of the musicians.
What is the role of the union?
The union plays many roles, including guiding the committee in all aspects of contract interpretations, communicating directly with management and sometimes being the impartial mediator in helping the committee reach consensus. Minor issues, especially interpersonal conflict between musicians, can be resolved internally with the help of the union and the committee. In contract negotiations, union officials (i.e. myself in many cases) lead the negotiation and usher through proposals and other contract-related documents from the first meeting to the final, ratified contract. But everything must be done in conjunction with — and with the approval of — the committee. Union officials must also ensure that negotiations do not run afoul of labor law.
Union staff may also help with the mechanics of committee elections and writing bylaws. While committee work is protected activity, it is often the union’s job to deliver difficult messages to management so that committee members and other individuals will not feel targeted.
How are committees formed?
Members are elected by their peers. If the orchestra doesn’t stipulate a procedure in its bylaws, the process is usually described in the collective bargaining agreement. Most committees consist of an odd number of musicians, usually three or five people, in case of a tie in an internal vote. The supervisor of the concert department and sometimes a Local 802 business rep completes the team.
Each committee makes its own rules. Who will be the chair and what role will they play in meetings and at the bargaining table? How long will the members serve? Will there be a rotation of new members and how often will there be elections? Will there be alternates and how involved will they be? What are the expectations of each member?
Who should serve?
This one can be tricky. Not everyone has the interest, time or stomach for committee work. Any musician with a personal, familial or fiduciary interest with management should step down. Some may assume that the most senior or most militant members of the orchestra are best suited for this role. This is not necessarily true! Commitment, honesty, integrity and diplomacy are more important than possessing the loudest voice. Committee work takes time, patience, problem-solving and leadership skills, and a willingness to listen. It is perfectly fine to say “no” if you are nominated to serve and feel that it is not right for you.
The most effective committees consist of a mix of both seasoned veterans and new members. As a committee member, you will become intimately familiar with the inner workings of the orchestra and will have learned some labor law and negotiation strategies along the way. In an ideal world, every member of the orchestra would serve a term, as this work gives one the tools to truly understand the contract. For example, a provision may seem unnecessary or outdated until you learn the bargaining history and discover the reason it was negotiated into the contract in the first place. This kind of insight only comes from being involved in the process. New committee members, however, bring fresh ideas and perspectives to the table. The best way to secure the future of the orchestra is to pass institutional knowledge to the next generation.
It is advantageous, but not necessary, for committee members to come from different sections of the orchestra. Contractual clauses dealing with string seating, doubling and cartage can best be addressed by musicians who are affected by those provisions. Also, those with ability in math, spreadsheets, writing, organization and research are extremely helpful when dividing up responsibilities.
Our committees are the backbone of our union and are our partners in achieving the best outcome for the orchestra. I hope that after learning more about committee work, some of you will reconsider your perception and become involved in the decisions that govern your life at work.
In a future column, I’ll discuss how committees prepare for negotiations and their role in the day-to-day life of the orchestra.
CORONAVIRUS ACTION CENTER
I started this column by talking about the coronavirus. Let me conclude by saying that Local 802 is putting many safeguards and resources in place to help musicians navigate the crisis. Please keep watching www.bitly.com/Local-802-coronavirus for updates. I wish you all good health and a quick return to work.