Unions: friends or foes of the arts?

Guest Commentary

Volume 112, No. 9September, 2012

Richard Dare

Musicians of the Brooklyn Philharmonic perform in an outdoor concert this summer.
Photo: Dave Saunders,
© Brooklyn Philharmonic

In an era some have described as the neo-gilded age of union busting, let us take a moment to note some of the good things unions do for the arts.

For the record, I am not a union member nor have I ever been one, nor do I expect to join; strictly speaking, as a manager of a public arts organization, I’ve been told I’m supposed to negotiate against the union’s interests, that they represent the “other side.” That said, I’ve found the union that regulates our industry has acted much more like a collaborative partner than an adversary and I suspect many others might have similar experiences.

So in the spirit of sharing ideas, and in case our experience might be helpful to anyone else, here are some things I do appreciate about working in a union environment:

1. By normalizing pay, the union provides us with the best workers.

I would hate it if larger orchestras in my geographic area could outbid me for the best musicians just because they were wealthier. But because the union more or less standardizes labor rates, I’m less likely to have great musicians choose another organization over mine simply because the other group pays a few dollars more. I want our artists to choose the Brooklyn Phil because of the exciting and meaningful work we’re doing – because of the lives we’re changing, because it’s fun. As odd as this may sound, when fees are standardized the only criteria left from which to make a choice is excellence.

Here’s an everyday example of what I mean: If each lawyer in America charged exactly the same hourly rate, who would you choose when you needed legal help? You’d simply choose the best lawyer for the job, of course, because price would not be a limiting factor, right? The same could be said of pretty much any service one buys: If all doctors cost the same, we’d choose the best doctor available, and the less skilled ones who got no work would eventually have to find some other lines of business.

When prices are highly differentiated though, people with different amounts of money get into bidding wars and tend to pay either too much or too little for their services. It’s awful to have to choose a cheaper option when you know it’s not the best one. We’ve all been in that situation, and it stinks. No one wants second-rate legal work or almost good healthcare; and I don’t think they want second-best music either.

At the end of the day, I don’t want to be the cheapest orchestra in town. I want to be the best one we can be. And in this sense, the union’s collective bargaining actually helps that happen.

2. The union provides healthcare for my employees and their families.

As a lifelong entrepreneur myself, I well remember many times my family and I had to survive without healthcare in the struggle to build my earliest companies. It was terrifying and my personal health suffered substantially on account of it.

I care a lot about the people I work with, and I don’t want them to have to put themselves or their families at risk unnecessarily. So I’m delighted the union provides healthcare to all our musicians and relieves me of the burdensome task of administering that with our limited staff resources.

3. The union plans for my employees’ retirements.

I would hate to have to manage a pension fund for such a small organization. I don’t think we could do it adequately with only about 150 workers. So I’m thrilled I don’t have to worry about that issue because the union has taken on the colossal responsibility of promising our musicians they’ll be taken care of when they retire by managing their pension fund. We could not afford the skill in-house to do that on our own.

4. The union provides credit facilities for artists.

At risk of sounding like a labor advertisement, I noticed a Credit Union inside the local union building the first time I visited; and think that’s pretty swell. Anyone who’s lived as an entrepreneur, an artist or freelancer knows it can frequently be difficult to obtain simple consumer credit and quite easy to mess it up. Being a professional musician has got to be a tough lifestyle at times, I would imagine. So I’m glad the union provides these sorts of services. Musicians with money troubles bring no upside to anyone.

5. The union provides counseling services to the artists.

Surprisingly, the union even provides mental health and counseling services to its members. Can’t beat that. Kudos to them for thinking of it.

6. The union has become a source of institutional memory and expertise for our organization.

The orchestra I joined, although 155 years old, has a very small, mostly young staff with a bootstrap start-up mentality that lacks much institutional memory or core expertise about the larger music industry. In short, we have to figure lots of things out as we go.

But because we reached out directly to the union and told them we really needed help, they’ve provided oodles of research, legal expertise and industry know-how to support our becoming successful. It would have been a much steeper learning curve if we’d had to figure everything out on our own; so I’m glad we didn’t view the union as only an organization to negotiate pay scales with every few years, but instead considered them real partners.

7. The union might be able to help us in fundraising.

This hasn’t happened yet, and I don’t know if it’s even possible. But often when I’m traveling to meet with funders in Washington D.C. or New York City, I wonder whether going in tandem with union leadership might make sense, because we’re frequently not only talking about producing art and education (which are our core missions), but also about providing local jobs and contributing to community development, which I imagine the union folks know a thing or two about.

This is an area I think we may be able to collaborate successfully on in the future because a win by any one of us (management, labor, or the communities we serve) is a win for all of us in my book.

In the final analysis

The astute reader will notice that nowhere in this essay have I cited any of the traditional arguments union supporters customarily trot out: I made no mention of achieving better pay, avoiding abuses, negotiating for improved benefits, strength in numbers (whatever that means), securing better working conditions or the like. I can’t opine on whether those arguments have any real merit or not. Nor have I tried to argue whether unions are a good or bad idea generally speaking. I leave those discussions to others.

I have, however, noted several specific things our union did for us and for which we are truly grateful, and observed that management partnering with the workers’ union has been a very positive choice in our case, in the hope that our experience might help others too.

My own views on labor relations are substantially informed, I should note, by the writings of the celebrated 19th-century art critic and thinker John Ruskin, whose series of essays entitled “Unto this Last” was cited by Mahatma Gandhi as one of the three most important influences of his life. (It’s worth a careful read in 2012 by both management and union leaders to show us places both sides may be falling short.)

Ruskin despised socialism, but also warned that the excesses of supply-and-demand capitalism could get us into heaps of trouble if we did not contextualize capitalism within a larger framework of social justice.

We should talk about the issue of social justice in greater detail sometime later. It’s an important topic. But for now, if you are required to work with a union, why not try partnering with them in good faith? The outcomes might be far better than you expect.

Thought experiment: If you could ask your union to do just one thing to help you, what would it be? How could you become true partners?

Richard Dare is the CEO and managing director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic. This essay first appeared in the and is reprinted with permission.