President’s Report

Strategies for Keeping the Union Strong

Volume CIX, No. 10October, 2009

Mary Landolfi

As I write, I have just returned from Norfolk, Virginia where I attended the annual conference of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians(ICSOM).

This is the first year I have been able to attend and I think it is fair to say that it was a productive week.

In our cover story, you will read about the serendipity of being in Norfolk and having easy access to Local 125 President John Lindberg when the situation with “Music of Led Zeppelin” came to a head.

We could not have received more support or cooperation than was extended to Local 802 by John and Local 125; the communication they initiated with the solo group engaged for the concert was part of the pressure that finally allowed us to get an agreement.

We extend our thanks to him for making our success in this situation possible.

The principal reason the player conferences meet every year is to allow the opportunity for musicians who work in similar situations to compare notes, hold discussions and learn new ideas that they can apply when they get home.

This conference was no exception.

There were a number of interesting presentations, but none was more so than that of Michael Kaiser, a manager known for resuscitating troubled arts organizations.

Given today’s economic climate, a lecture in his area of expertise could not have been more timely.

For those who do not know Mr. Kaiser a little background is in order.

After a successful career as a management consultant, he became interested in helping arts organizations survive and prosper.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Kansas City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre are all among the organizations that possibly would not exist, certainly not at the current level of activity, without Mr. Kaiser’s intervention. His presentation was fascinating.

Musicians who have worked in the nonprofit sector know what a tenuous existence it can be.

Unless one is fortunate to work at one of a handful of arts organizations (and even that is now in question), one’s income can be a precarious thing, captive to the ability of a board to raise money and a management team to sell tickets.

Musicians who work in the symphonic field are all too familiar with the tendency of managements to balance the budget on the backs of the artists.

Kaiser spoke forcefully against this philosophy, stating unequivocally that a symphony or ballet company cannot cut its way to success.

Having met Mr. Kaiser a number of years ago when he rescued American Ballet Theatre, I was somewhat familiar with his philosophy and anxious to hear more.

What I did not expect was that his message about management of arts organizations would resonate so clearly in relation to the governance of a union.

Several of the rules he presented are, I believe, applicable to the union.

I want to present them here for the consideration of a larger number of people in the hope that it may stimulate some useful debate within Local 802.

First, as stated above, Kaiser believes that you cannot save your way to success.

As I have said in other columns, I believe we should be extremely careful in dispensing our members’ money, but in today’s economic climate, I also think we have to be careful not to allow that frugal instinct to become miserliness.

We cannot allow the desire to run in the black to prevent us from providing the support members need when they need it most.

For instance, this year we will expend much more for legal services than we normally do.

We should remember that our bottom line will recuperate with the economy; we must make the resources available to defend our contracts during this emergency, even if it means unusually high expenses for a time.

Kaiser also believes that organizations must focus on today and tomorrow, not yesterday.

He relates this principle to the fact that arts organizations in trouble tend to spend most of their time trying to keep the wolf from the door by negotiating overdue bills, rather than focusing on tasks that will make the company stronger in the long term.

Even in good times he thinks that plans are made by most arts organization on too short-term a basis.

This might seem irrelevant to a union, but it strikes me that we spend far too much time on minute details of the day-to-day functioning of the union and not enough on long-term plans.

This idea is one that I have heard expressed in other contexts – the tendency of troubled organizations to attend to items that are unimportant in the long run rather than on identifying factors that will change the trajectory favorably for the future.

Is there something we could focus upon that would change the direction of our union?

What would we have to do to pursue it?

Are we willing to make the changes required to accomplish it?

Are we willing to be uncomfortable now to be more successful in the future?

Kaiser had more to say that we should also consider.

Renewal of governance must be a prime concern.

How do you prevent a board from becoming stale?

How do you inject new blood in a way that creates new energy for the organization?

How do you develop a common vision for the future?

How do you develop a culture that supports positive change even if it seems threatening to some stakeholders?

For those members who find these questions interesting, I recommend Kaiser’s book, “The Art of the Turnaround.”

I believe the information found in it is valuable to us as well as our employers.