Resignation and Reflections

Views from the Board

Volume CVI, No. 5May, 2006

Mary Whitaker

On April 25, I submitted my letter of resignation as a member of the Executive Board, effective immediately. I write this article as a reflection on my short term serving in that position.

Three years ago I saw an opportunity to try and make a difference in the governance of our union. I thought it possible with a new administration and an influx of new board members that we might all help steer our union toward becoming more responsible and accountable to our membership.

After the distressing Broadway negotiations of 2003, I thought it important to help our union become more responsive to its members by increasing the number of active working musicians in the governing process and help secure a stronger voice of the rank and file.

In choosing to become involved at this level of governance my fundamental philosophy was that we are all on the same side. We all have a common purpose and are in general agreement about that common purpose.

When we find ourselves in disagreement a consensus is reached through discussion and debate. The overriding objective is to find a way to disagree and still remain supportive. In short, to honor the union principle of solidarity.

It has been demonstrated to me that this philosophy has not been at work at our union. In trying to address a damaging internal situation during the Radio City negotiations, charges were filed against two officers. Subsequently, a political firestorm was ignited. A campaign of misleading information was waged. And under pressure and threats of lawsuits, these charges were withdrawn. The result was a political war machine set in motion.

A process that should have been allowed to come before the membership at an appropriate time and place as determined by our governing bylaws was instead undermined and subjected to a gross manipulation of due process.

During any negotiation a common technique is that of divide and conquer. Usually it happens when an employer tries to break away a committee member in order to help facilitate a desired result. We should all find this technique distressing when it happens within our own ranks.

During the Radio City negotiations, when we had union officers second guessing and acting against the stated desires of the negotiating committee, the effect was to have union officials doing the bidding for management.

Even if there were a case to be made for excusing this behavior as truly innocent or well meaning, the bottom line is that this is certainly injurious to the common goal of any union.

In a world where labor unions seem only to lose power and influence, how is it possible for us to achieve any of our desired goals if we can not find a way to disagree yet remain supportive? How are we to function as an organization if we have such a lack of respect for the rules under which we are to behave and govern? How are we to be able to reach a consensus if demonstrated behavior betrays trust and dishonors truth?

On the heels of this political explosion post Radio City, one week after chargers were filed against a board member and a vice president, this same vice president revealed to the Executive Board that there had been personal use on a union credit card by the president. Certainly there is no excuse for this inappropriate behavior by the president and I offer none here.

Even though the president never attempted to conceal the situation — and it had been known to the vice president for two years — the situation was characterized to the board as if the union was on fire and if we didn’t deal with this immediately — if not yesterday — we will all face federal prosecution.

It was obvious to me that the manner and timing in which this was revealed was meant to embarrass and politically damage the president. Mission accomplished.

Likewise, for a past president now to point fingers judgmentally, deflecting responsibility from his administration, which was confronted with similar personal credit card use by an officer, is duplicitous at best.

Such is life within a political organization like a labor union, or so I have been told. I mistakenly thought our union could operate on a higher level.

The good news from all this is that our union has now adopted the recommendations from the Cary report and will finally have a policy in place.

Having a financial policy that addresses credit cards and signing of checks has obviously been long past due. So is an oversight system.

Serving on the Executive Board has been an interesting education as to how our union actually operates. Like all organizations of any size I often marvel that anything gets accomplished. And yet there have been many successes in the last three years.

It has been a positive and progressive move that we have achieved contractual language banning the use of the virtual orchestra machine in all Off Broadway and freelance orchestra contracts. Our union has now become a beacon for all other unions facing this technology.

Lincoln Center orchestras have all successfully negotiated new contracts.

It has been extremely important for 802 once again to be represented on the International Executive Board. We were instrumental in reversing the punitive AFM “back end” dues payment on recording special payments distributions.

All of these accomplishments are now severely overshadowed by a political end game.

Balancing accomplishments within the political climate that has now enveloped our union has become extremely difficult.

What I find so very frustrating and distressing is that I can’t fix it and I don’t have the power to change it. My frustration and disappointment have given way to disgust with the daily game of placing blame. Hostility and venom all too often replace civil discourse. Political manipulation and maneuvering have created a situation that complicates the board’s mission to act in the best interest of membership.

To use one’s position on the Executive Board as a political tool only hurts the membership. In lighter moments this can be seen as some sort of Orwellian theatre of the absurd. In darker moments this has turned into some sort of game where not only is the desired goal of a minority coalition to “win” but, that someone also has to “lose” during the process. In this environment no one wins, and only the membership loses.

A new direction of leadership is being offered by those who are trying to paint a picture of our union as a house on fire. Let us be mindful that these are the same people who are responsible for bringing us the Industrial/Promotional Broadway Agreement, Special Situations, and the 2003 Broadway contract.

Is our collective memory so short as to not remember that the concessionary negotiating experience of 2003 brought a 22 percent reduction in the minimums? These reductions were significant as we went from 452 musicians to the current 351. What does this mean? Significant reductions for musicians — and subsequently less opportunities for substitutes. Significant reductions for our union in terms of work dues, pension and welfare contributions. All resulting in very significant savings for the employer.

Couple this with a diluted “just cause” language that now allows the employer to dismiss a musician after the eighth service (as opposed to the second service) means that we suffered great losses in both wages and job security. And a satisfactory answer as to the mysterious disappearance of COLA (cost of living adjustment) has never been forthcoming. When, why and how did that disappear without the knowledge of the negotiating committee — and what did we get for this significant concession? To this day the lead negotiator and the committee chair have remained silent.

Where was the outrage over the 2003 Broadway negotiation from those board members who are now so severe in their judgment of the Radio City negotiation? It concerns me that there are those who still refuse to take the Radio City negotiating committee at their word. This minority coalition of so-called concerned board members insists on arguing against fact. It is as if they prefer to believe that the lead negotiator cast some magical spell over these musicians and they took leave of their senses. There is indeed some sorcery within our midst, we should all be very concerned.

I have no political ambition. I don’t like politics, I’m not good at it, and this, not surprisingly, has left me with demonstrably insufficient skills to maneuver amongst the wily politicians with whom I serve.

The result is that I no longer have the interest or the fight in me to confront half-truths, rumors, or organized campaigns intended to mislead.

I personally don’t know how to operate other than addressing issues from a position of truth seeking and problem solving. I have no interest in fighting one another.

I am deeply disappointed at the division that has developed on the Executive Board and the behavior by certain members that embraces political maneuvering, manipulation of due process, Machiavellian attempts to entrap board members and obscenities uttered under the breath directed at fellow members. Behavior that is lacking in integrity and disrespectful to the members whom we were elected to serve.

This has all created an environment I find to be distasteful, counterproductive and wasteful of time and energy.

I cannot change the behavior of others, but I can choose not to participate. I hope others will find a way to be more productive in this situation. I offer my best wishes, for we need more rank-and-file participation at this time, not less. Maybe for those who up to this point have felt more comfortable sitting on the sidelines will see this time as an opportunity to step forth and add their voice and wisdom to better our future.

The union will survive the current turmoil. The house is not on fire, and it is my hope that we will eventually become stronger through all this. Nurturing a position of strength must be accomplished through truth and trust.

Our community is too small for the current divisive behavior to be allowed to fester. We all need to ask what we want and expect from our leadership. An open and honest debate must be allowed so membership may examine motivation and vision. The membership will be presented with choices, and how we handle that debate yet to come will determine what type of leadership we end up with as we try moving forward. The blessing and the curse is that we will get the leadership we deserve. I wish us all the best of luck. May we be granted wisdom and courage.