Unity Conference Offered Debate, Change and Diversity of Views

Volume CII, No. 10October, 2002

David Lennon

On Aug. 14-18, the three AFM symphonic player conferences met for the second Unity Conference in Ottawa, Canada. Attending were the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM), Regional Orchestra Players’ Association (ROPA) and Organization of Canadian Symphony Musicians (OCSM).

The combined conferences provided an opportunity for the delegates to share perspectives on issues of mutual concern. The conference also marked the 40th anniversary of ICSOM, comprised of U.S. orchestras whose budget is approximately $5 million and higher, and the 25th anniversary of OCSM, representing 20 Canadian orchestras of various budget sizes. Local 802 member orchestras of ICSOM are the New York Philharmonic, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, New York City Ballet Orchestra and New York City Opera Orchestra. The Long Island Philharmonic is represented at ROPA, the U.S. player conference established in 1984 for smaller-sized orchestras with budgets from $500,000 to $5 million.

Key events from the joint sessions were a discussion of the Electronic Media Forum (EMF); labor-management relations, with a particular focus on the artistic decision-making process and job security; and presentations from orchestras in particular crisis at this time. In addition, a variety of breakout sessions were held on topics relevant to each individual player conference. Unfortunately, presentations by ICSOM legal counsel Lenny Leibowitz and his wife, arbitrator Peggy Leibowitz, did not take place as scheduled, due to illness. In the past, their presentations have been a high point of the conference for many participants.

Another important aspect of the conference was the opportunity it provided for the delegates to meet with AFM officers and Symphonic Services Division (SSD) staff.

Last year, the newly-elected AFM leadership reached out to each player conference with a message of solidarity, cooperation and support. The officers renewed that message at this year’s conference. AFM President Tom Lee spoke to the delegates at great length concerning the Federation’s efforts this past year to broaden its presence and power in the industry. Specific efforts have focused on increasing union density in the recording industry, getting stronger legislation passed, achieving greater visibility in the press and addressing the willingness of the INS to grant visas to foreign orchestras who undercut union standards.

Secretary-Treasurer Florence Nelson, a former ICSOM officer and delegate, spoke about changes in the music industry that she said will require increased resources and solidarity on our side of the table.

The relationship between the AFM and the player conferences has not always been smooth. That proved to be the case at times during this year’s conference. The activities of the EMF were the primary issue of contention. Established in 2001, the EMF is a consortium of orchestra senior management, AFM officers, SSD directors, ICSOM, OCSM and ROPA officers and musicians who meet to discuss and identify mutual concerns and negotiate agreements governing electronic activities in which North American symphony orchestras participate.

Last year, impassioned debate on how to proceed in the upcoming electronic-media negotiations dominated the discussions. As a result, and in response to resolutions passed by all three player conferences, the AFM committed to survey the rank-and-file before EMF negotiations went forward.

This year, opinion was divided on the method and means by which the Federation would disseminate the EMF fact report and survey and would gather survey responses from the membership. Ultimately, ROPA delegates chose to have the Federation send the EMF report and survey directly to the rank-and-file and have the members send their surveys directly back to the Federation. On the other hand, ICSOM delegates decided to let each orchestra choose the manner in which surveys would be distributed and the results tabulated and returned to the Federation.

At times discord occurred between the AFM and player delegates, particularly sharply about the EMF issue. A step toward reconciliation was made near the end of the conference when, at the request of President Lee, AFM officers and ICSOM delegates met in closed session to discuss their differences about the EMF privately.

Another controversial topic explored at last year’s conferences was the concept of Interest Based Bargaining. This process breaks from the traditional concept of “two teams” meeting across the table. The idea is for the union and management sides to assume non-adversarial positions while trying to explore creative solutions to mutual concerns.

A panel discussion entitled “Artistic Decisions – Who Decides What?” touched on similar approaches to the artistic decision-making process in symphony orchestras. 802 President Bill Moriarity, AFM SSD negotiator Nathan Kahn, New Jersey Symphony delegate Robert Wagner, Dayton Philharmonic Music Director Neal Gittleman and Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association President Henry Fogel comprised the panel.

Some panelists advocated a more collaborative approach to artistic and organizational leadership between the musicians and management, while others expressed concern over musicians being put in the position of policing one another.

What became evident in these discussions was the importance of recognizing the difference between input and authority. When the music director has the authority to dismiss a musician for artistic reasons, it is then that musician input, as exists in Peer Review provisions in numerous symphony contracts, is the most effective. President Moriarity discussed the union’s role at this point of the artistic decision-making process and spoke of the driving issue behind the recently settled Mostly Mozart strike – that of meaningful job security.

Orchestra representatives of the St. Louis, Toronto and San Jose symphonies gave another important presentation. All three have experienced severe crises this year. Both St. Louis and Toronto have had to enter into concessionary bargaining in order to survive. Sadly, the musicians of the San Jose symphony saw their orchestra collapse under bankruptcy through gross mismanagement. These discussions revealed that changing times may require more creative and non-traditional approaches to bargaining in order to insure the survival of orchestras.

The conference offered an abundance of differing opinions. The delegates’ diversity of views and desire for change was made evident at the close of the conference, when they elected new leadership to both ICSOM and ROPA.