Who cares about orchestras?

Financial Vice President's Report

Volume 112, No. 12December, 2012

Tom Olcott

Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra have been locked out of their jobs since Oct. 1. Photo: Greg Helgeson

Who cares about orchestras? Who wants them to survive, and who
doesn’t? Who has “skin in the game” and who is just pretending?

As one observes the national landscape of orchestra contract
negotiations, those are probably just the first questions. Take a look at the
following list of current situations:

  • The Minnesota Orchestra is locked out. Musicians have refused a
    30 percent pay cut. Management is renovating the lobby of Orchestra Hall at
    a cost of $52 million. Current endowment balance exceeds $100 million.
    Concerts are cancelled until December 31, 2012. The Musicians of the
    Minnesota Orchestra are self-producing concerts, to sold-out houses. Their
    audience applauds, while their management remains intransigent.

  • The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra is locked out. Management
    seeks deep pay cuts, reduction in forces (this is with a chamber orchestra,
    folks!), and the ability to remove musicians over the age of 55. Concerts
    are cancelled until December 31, 2012, yet those musicians also play on in
    self-run, self-produced concerts despite management cancellations.

  • The Atlanta Symphony recently accepted a contract that calls
    for $5.2 million in cuts to musician salaries, and a reduction in forces.
    The orchestra’s general manager, chief financial officer, and marketing
    director resigned in early November.

  • The Indianapolis Symphony accepted an immediate 32 percent pay
    cut, with some restoration over a number of years, with later year caveats
    that benefit management.

  • The Jacksonville Symphony musicians attempted to negotiate in
    good faith for many months. Management never moved off its initial proposal.
    Then Management declared impasse (that bad labor law term of art), and
    imposed its initial proposal, reducing salaries drastically. Jacksonville
    musicians have filed an Unfair Labor Practice complaint with the National
    Labor Relations Board, and the disposition of that complaint is “in
    process” as of this writing.

These ongoing crises are the most prominent of any number of other
instances of orchestra musicians, and our union, under attack! And each one of
these attacks undermines not only our members’ livelihoods, but also attacks
the vitality of the orchestral art form itself, and an orchestra’s central
role in any locality’s cultural and economic identity.

(By the way, the self-produced concerts of locked-out musicians in
Minnesota are being conducted by former music directors of each group. This is
remarkable. Conductors do not customarily weigh in on orchestral labor disputes,
and rarely perform with displaced or locked-out musicians. In Minnesota, these
esteemed music directors – who were formerly active participants in their
institutions – support the musicians and are aiding them in their contractual

Here in New York, we have experienced the utter evisceration of the
New York City Opera, an amazing and deplorable abandonment of one of New York’s
most venerated institutions. Management irresponsibility? Yes. Disregard of the
art form? Yes. Disregard of a dedicated public? Yes. Plan for revival? No.
Viable new plan that could work? No.

Other than the New York City Opera, we have not experienced further
management extremism – yet. However, I fear that management misbehavior and
irresponsibility has become so pervasive nationally that its arrival in our
jurisdiction may appear with an effect comparable to that of Hurricane Sandy.

So how do we prepare for a potential coming storm? How do we
provide sufficient sandbags to repel and possibly even counteract that

Here are some thoughts.

First, let’s unite in our resistance to attack, and understand
that musicians have the most “skin in the game.” As musicians, we
cannot collaborate in a race to the bottom by accepting substandard working
conditions. We must, as a union, resist any attempt to undermine our extremely
high, and well-deserved, local standards. That means that some members may have
to refuse engagements that don’t meet those standards. I certainly realize
that refusing work may be impossible under diminished employment circumstances,
but implore those offered this type of work to let Local 802 know about that
work before it happens. We can help.

Second, we all need to explain to our younger colleagues that union
membership, and solidarity with union principles, ultimately results in local
standards that are clear to all employers, and which reflect fair compensation
for the extraordinary skills on display. And while we have all aspired to, and
maybe have lived, the life of the artist, we all ultimately need to become
economic beings as our lives grow to be more complex and our responsibilities
multiply. The youngest of us need that professional world head start now, not
later. Local 802 is here to make that imperative a reality for new – and
established – members. If you are one who sees the union as irrelevant to your
artistic life, think again, and come talk to us. If you are participating in an
existing ensemble that does not have a union contract, consider your long-term
aspirations for a stable musical life. Remember that stability includes both
artistic and economic elements. Then come talk to us about how both forms of
stability, through fair wages, health plan and pension plan participation, are
enhanced by union affiliation.

Third, we all need to remember that our dedication to our art and
to our profession has palpable economic consequences, and very positive ones,
for the larger economic world around us. Good art is good business, and don’t
let anyone convince you otherwise. Think of the restaurants, bars, parking lots,
bridge and tunnel tolls, all those services paid for by patrons who love to
hear, and see, what we do. And the city gets the related taxes. Economic
viability is a strong argument for our preservation and we should never forget

And finally, if you are in a negotiation situation, or need to argue a fine
point of contract interpretation with your management, rule one is never to
believe the suit in front of you. Ask the pertinent questions – politely, but
insistently, please – and don’t buy the line you are being fed. And rule
two, please call Local 802 and we will help you. With solidarity, cooperation,
and communication we may be able to keep the art alive, and the nay-sayers far