Growth, unity and solidarity are the real story behind Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas

Volume 111, No. 10October, 2011

Bill Rohdin, Harvey Mars and Mike Donovan

Every experience teaches us. For the musicians of the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas, the journey they took together left an indelible mark. It was a journey that resulted in growth, unity and solidarity. It was a lesson in how to stick together.

Over the summer, musicians learned that the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas was suspending operations. This was the final chapter in a negotiating process that had begun in October of the previous year.

Why did the orchestra go out of business? The main reasons cited by Martin Lewis, the chairman of the board, were:

  • The loss of Mexican corporate sponsorship
  • An inability to raise money
  • A lack of an endowment or an annual fund of subscribers to provide a consistent level of support
  • “Uncertainty in the economy and the union negotiations.”

It seems clear that financial troubles were the cause of the orchestra’s downfall. But it’s important to tell the union’s side of the story, in case any doubt remains.

Local 802’s goals remained constant. We wanted to bring the orchestra in line with the standards of the other prominent ensembles playing in major New York venues.

This objective was not forced upon the orchestra as something that was to be achieved all at once but something that both parties would work toward over time.

This would give the orchestra a chance to adjust to the needs of the musicians and provide the orchestra the breathing room it needed to grow into the major ensemble that it was in the process of becoming.

Negotiations with the orchestra began in October 2010 when it was contracted to play at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall. The union was approached by Local 802 members who played in the orchestra; they wanted to be covered by a union contract.

In order to avoid a union action, the orchestra signed a single engagement contract covering the orchestra members at reduced scales. This, at least, would put the orchestra on the road to gaining parity with other New York City ensembles.

The orchestra also signed a recognition agreement with Local 802, which set the stage for full negotiations.

The orchestra players, through their Facebook site, began to seriously discuss the idea of unionism and how they – as musicians in an emerging orchestra – would negotiate this contract.

They also began thinking about who among themselves should serve on the negotiating committee.

Throughout this process, musicians met with Jay Blumenthal, who was then Local 802’s financial vice president. They also met with union attorney Harvey Mars and Local 802 staff. All of this was to explain the negotiating process to musicians and allay any fears they might have had.

It was clear early on that the musicians were going to be active and involved. Their dedication to the process, to conductor Alondra de la Parra, and to their fellow players was consistent throughout the negotiations.

Elected as co-chairs, musicians Eddie Burns and Flavio Gaete led a team that sought to get a good contract with management but also had deep attachments to Ms. de la Parra. She had created the orchestra from former classmates at the Manhattan School of Music and was friends with many of them.

As negotiations continued, the orchestra kept performing. Even though there was no master agreement in place yet, concerts were covered by one-time union contracts, each one better than the last.

Musicians felt that they were getting someplace. Negotiations were generally cordial and it was believed by both sides that an agreement could be achieved.

Then the orchestra changed its legal counsel. Ralph Craviso was replaced by Larry Baer and Martin Lewis.

At the first meeting with the new management team, it became evident in a number of ways that negotiation dynamics were going to change.

A quick look at our proposals and management’s proposals will show some differences.

On our side, we proposed a tenure list for musicians. We also proposed language on the use of any recording made by the orchestra.

This recording language has been part of our contracts for many years. It allows for the making of grant proposal or archival recordings while at the same time prohibiting the use of recordings for commercial purposes unless the musicians have been properly compensated under the appropriate AFM recording agreement. It also allows for up to three minutes of any rehearsal or performance to be used in news programs or other promotional undertakings without compensation to musicians.

Orchestra management seemed to accept many of our proposals. But there were two big problems.

One was the management’s recording proposal. It’s worth reprinting here: “Local 802 and the American Federation of Musicians permit the Employer to record, reproduce and/or transmit all engagements. The Employer will send a notice twenty-four (24) hours to the Union prior to the engagement.”

That was a kick in the teeth. It would have allowed management to make unlimited recordings of the orchestra without paying the musicians.

Secondly, orchestra management refused the idea of a long-term tenure list. Instead, they wanted to guarantee musicians their chairs only for a maximum of two years at a time. Their rationale for this was that they wanted to redefine the orchestra as a “training” ensemble.

This really angered the musicians, but even so, we were still willing to talk. At no point did we walk away from the table.

At our last negotiating session, musicians read out loud a statement that they had addressed to the orchestra management and board that outlined their dismay and sadness at management’s proposals.

That was the last time we met face to face. A few months later, the orchestra announced it was suspending operations until further notice.

In the end, musicians took control of the process. They participated, they offered new approaches to difficult problems, they kept in touch with their fellow orchestra musicians, and they took the advice of seasoned negotiators and acted upon that advice. If this process came to an unfortunate end, it should not reflect badly upon those who spent many months trying to bring this process to a successful conclusion.

The young musicians who made up the orchestra continue to play and move forward with their careers. Those of us who worked with them are proud to have met them and were greatly impressed by their professionalism and their skills.

Sadly, the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas could not find a way to accommodate their talent. We know, however, that the negotiation skills developed by the orchestra committee will serve them well as they advance in their careers as professional musicians.

This story originally appeared in the October 2011 issue of Allegro, the magazine of the New York City musicians’ union (AFM Local 802). For reprint requests, send an e-mail to editor Mikael Elsila at