President’s Report

Is There No Longer Any Honor Among Musicians?

Volume CVII, No. 5May, 2007

Mary Landolfi

You know you’re getting old when standards once widely accepted are replaced by a new reality. “In my day…” has always been the identifying cry of those whose day is past. Time does march on and the old always makes way for a new reality, but one has to ask a pertinent question: When is the new reality an improvement and when is it not?

I think most would agree that extending suffrage to women was an advance, while the whole-hearted embrace of free-market philosophy is a mixed bag at best. But what about musicians? Have changes in our behavior and standards over the last 20 or 30 years improved our lot in life, or not?

Time was — before Taft-Hartley outlawed closed shops — unions had considerable power over the lives of members, and the process of “charges at the union” was a powerful weapon.

Members could not only be fined by the Trial Board, they could ultimately be expelled from the union for non-conformity with the bylaws. That expulsion meant loss of employment.

Obviously, that kind of power was easy to abuse, but it did have the beneficial effect of imposing a kind of code of honor.

Once upon a time, discussion of perceived musical inadequacies of one’s colleagues was frowned upon.

Lobbying for a job that had customarily been done by someone else gave you a questionable reputation. Encouraging management to fire someone was a ticket to the Trial Board room.

As Taft-Hartley took effect, it became harder for the union to effectively punish members for undermining co-workers, and the friendly, fraternal nature of our business began to be lost.

The diminution of work has only accelerated the trend to the point that it now seems like open season when it comes to the question of getting and controlling work.

Professional backstabbing is now endemic in our business and it’s a nationwide problem.

Ed Ward, the former president of Local 10-208 (Chicago), felt compelled to write a letter to musicians of the Chicago Symphony about this exact subject.

I myself have received no less than five phone calls in the last two weeks from musicians who believe that co-workers are actively undermining their employment security by making complaints about them to management.

We’re obviously in a brave new world where the old traditions of esprit de corps no longer apply.

It is true that we are devoted to our vocation and do not want artistic standards to suffer for any reason: it is not without cause that we consider our profession to be a calling and refer to ourselves as artists.

This consideration, however, is not a sufficient reason to abandon a fundamental tenet of union membership — that we do not “commit any act tending to injure the reputation of a fellow member in relation to his/her calling as a musician.”

First, while it may be flattering to have the ear of the conductor or manager, the individuals filling these positions do change. And — once it is established that free criticism is allowed — the judge within the orchestra may easily find himself or herself next in line to be judged. In a line of work in which all evaluations are subjective, the tables can be turned swiftly and forcefully, with dire consequences for those who may currently think they are immune from criticism.

Second, the violation of due process for one’s co-workers undermines job conditions for which we have fought for many years.

Finally, as Ed Ward wrote, “There is no better way to sow dissension within an organization and communicate to those with whom we must negotiate that the union is divided and weak than to advocate for the termination of a colleague.”

It is easy to state cavalierly that someone “can’t play”; however, given the level of competition that currently exists in our profession, it is not likely that this is really the case in the vast majority of instances.

The far more likely scenario is that relatively minor issues of taste and preference are being used to further a personal desire, whether it is to advance the career of a friend, retaliate against an opponent or please someone in power.

I can make one statement with certainty: this new reality is not an improvement. Unless we can all treat each other with greater humanity and return to the old custom of critiquing our own playing instead of that of our colleagues, the workplace is going to be unpleasant and the Trial Board may be very busy.