Forward Thinking: ICSOM Musicians Take Challenges Head On

Volume CIII, No. 11November, 2003

David Lennon

Orchestras filing for bankruptcy. Underpaid musicians. Poorly managed symphonies. The problems of playing classical music are many – and they’re not new, either.

The International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians – ICSOM – was established in 1962 to fight for the improvement of orchestral musicians. 802 Assistant Director David Lennon attended the 2003 ICSOM Conference and filed this report.

As indicated by ICSOM Chair Jan Gippo at the opening session, the newly-elected ICSOM officers and governing board had to face the challenges of this past year on the heels of a contentious election that, in the minds of many, left the delegation divided at the end of last year’s conference. It is clear that the leadership of ICSOM has made great progress toward healing that divide.

In addition, both the AFM and ICSOM are to be commended for their great stride forward in solidarity. Communication has increased and become more inclusive. Over the course of the past year the AFM and ICSOM have held several forums to address key issues.

A meeting of the Electronic Media Forum was held, which resulted in the formation of an Electronic Media Committee, whose goal was to achieve consensus on recording issues among the ICSOM orchestras.

The AFM also convened an emergency meeting in Chicago on troubled orchestras impacted by the current negative economic climate (see report in the September 2003 Allegro).

In addition, in the works are plans to move forward with a health insurance committee that had an initial meeting prior to the conference.


Internally, the new ICSOM leadership increased efforts to include all delegates in all decisions and to maintain a steady flow of communication in an effort to keep the delegates fully informed and on the same page. Most importantly, the theme of the conference, “Back to Basics and Looking to the Future,” helped prioritize the solidarity that is essential if we are to get beyond our internal differences that are ultimately self defeating.

That message was eloquently delivered by the keynote speaker, 802 President Bill Moriarity.

Moriarity brought insight and perspective to the recent difficulties by pointing out that the internal tensions that are sometimes inevitable among the AFM, player conferences and locals are a normal part of the collective process and a reflection of the various positions and views brought to the table.

He spoke of two experiences this past year that illustrated the nuts and bolts of real solidarity.

First, the financial package formulated at the recent AFM convention by the Joint Law and Finance Committee that tackled the challenge of proposed financial increases that potentially threatened to split the convention. Due to great compromise by many parties (including the large locals and small locals) – and most notably the RMA’s willingness to accept the fee assessment on Special Payments Funds, the AFM came out of the convention more solidified than ever before.

The second experience Moriarity cited was the recent Broadway campaign. The effective public relations effort proved that people still value us and provided what ultimately was the single most effective tool against the employers’ unified resolve to abolish theatre minimums. Most importantly, the coalition formed by the conglomerate of theatre unions marked a historic unified show of solidarity among all theatre workers.

Moriarity noted that although there has been criticism of the negotiation in the months since, it is crucial that the victories of the campaign be recognized and expanded on.

Lastly, looking to the future, he stressed how important it was that we remain actively in the forefront of addressing an ever-changing culture and workplace.


AFM President Tom Lee addressed the delegates with an overview of the fights and struggles the union has embarked on in the past year. He stressed the importance of the AFM’s ongoing efforts to immerse the union in the legislative process, pointing out that legislative bodies pass laws that often trump our successes at the bargaining table and allow jobs to leave the country. Lee emphasized the need for substantial political contributions so that the AFM can initiate change rather than simply react to legislation. He spoke of the unique aspects of this year’s AFM convention, in particular the solidarity demonstrated by the delegates and musicians in reaching consensus on the comprehensive financial package that will secure an additional $1 million to the AFM annually.

Lee also commended Local 802 for the solidarity we were able to achieve among all theatrical unions on Broadway. The AFM had honored Actors’ Equity President Patrick Quinn and IATSE Local 1 President Ed McConway at the most recent AFM convention.


Leonard Leibowitz, legal counsel for ICSOM and the AFM Symphonic Services Division, delivered a powerful report on the state of the symphonic industry this past year. Leibowitz observed that “this was one of the worst years ever” and “the only ones sharing the pain were the musicians.”

Leibowitz also remarked that the definition of fundraising has in many cases deteriorated to taking dollars out of the musicians’ pockets.

For example, in the San Antonio Symphony, at the onset of troubled times a three-pronged plan was established so that management, the board and the musicians would take certain actions. By the time bankruptcy occurred, the musicians were the only ones who fulfilled their end.

In the case of the Florida Philharmonic, the musicians gave concessions twice. The orchestra filed for bankruptcy anyway.

Leibowitz said that this pointed up the fact that concessions alone don’t work unless there is a competent management in place. He was mindful to point out that over the years similar crises have been handled competently by some employers. In such cases, as in Columbus and Detroit, although musicians took severe concessions for a period of time, under good management they were ultimately able to experience rehabilitation.

Leibowitz noted that heroes emerge in these struggles. He gave special acknowledgement to ICSOM delegates from the Louisville Orchestra, San Antonio Symphony and Florida Philharmonic, three of the hardest hit orchestras in recent times. Leibowitz also commended Bill Moriarity for his tireless efforts to bring the theatre unions together in the recent Broadway negotiations and credited him for ultimately getting those unions to walk out together.

A highlight of every ICSOM conference has been the informative and compelling presentations given by both Leibowitz and his wife, Peg Leibowitz, an arbitrator and a professor of labor relations. This year proved to be no different. Their “Back to Basics Workshop: The ABC’s of CBA’s” and “Grievance and Arbitration” offered a unique opportunity to examine contract language from the point of view of both negotiator and arbitrator. Their purpose was to demonstrate how best to write contract language to safeguard against disputes down the road, keeping in mind that after negotiations, ultimately the enforcement of contract provisions may very well wind up in the hands of an arbitrator.

Leibowitz walked the delegates through an ideal boilerplate contract pointing out what to look for and what to avoid in each provision. Peg Leibowitz shared her insight on how arbitrators are likely to interpret contract language, with particular focus on clarity of language, the parties’ intent, past practice and case law.


Given the current negative economic environment that has affected many symphony orchestras, perhaps the most compelling and well-received presentation was given by Michael Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Kaiser has a proven track record of pulling troubled companies out of the depths of despair and setting them on course for a successful future. To name a few, Alvin Ailey, American Ballet Theatre and the Royal Opera House were all in trouble when Kaiser arrived. He was instrumental in stabilizing those organizations and setting them well on the road to recovery.

Kaiser noted that many arts organizations are reacting to current economic crises by focusing on what will make the orchestra richer, not healthier. Often short-term fiscal problems lead to stale, cheaper programming. In fact, he believes the focus should be on the promise of greater artistic achievement and a comprehensive and aggressive marketing effort.

Regarding concessions, Kaiser stressed that cuts should first come on the administrative level, and when cuts happen to artists it is imperative that a plan of recovery be in place. He did point out that it was critical for current artists to be memorialized through recordings and that both management and labor needed to explore non-traditional ways of doing that or a whole generation of artists would be lost. He particularly felt that the Internet must be addressed and that we needed to figure out how to utilize it as a tool for our own promotion.

Lastly, Kaiser emphasized the importance of board training. He pointed out that all too often symphony orchestra boards are comprised of well-intentioned amateurs who don’t understand what makes arts organizations successful. Best put, Kaiser said “I’ve never seen an arts organization get healthy by spending less.” He also stressed that it is not the function of the board to help run the organization – that is the job of the administrative staff. Board members need to drum up support and be visible in the community to raise money.

It is important to note that Kaiser puts his money where his mouth is. In 2001, he created the Vilar Institute for Arts Management at the Kennedy Center. The program offers hands-on arts management experience through fellowship and internship programs aimed at creating successful managers in today’s complex world of performing arts. Needless to say, his presentation came as a breath of fresh air to musicians and union officials alike who have had to endure the endless barrage of recent employer requests for cutbacks and concessions.


In addition to the excellent presentations given at this year’s conference, the delegates had the opportunity to share reports from each of their orchestras and address important conference business. Of particular importance was the adoption of a bylaw (pending member ratification) that increased ICSOM dues to address the same increased costs of doing business that were similarly addressed by the AFM and were proposed by Local 802 at the Oct. 21 membership meeting.