During the week of 17-23 November, 2014, for the first time, orchestra musicians and their trade unions in all countries with a symphonic tradition took part in a global campaign to alert audiences and political decision makers about a situation that has become critical.
Financing of symphony orchestras has been one of the main topics addressed by the FIM International Orchestra Conference in Berlin (2008), Amsterdam (2011) and Oslo (2014). On both sides of the Atlantic, despite different financing models based on different histories and traditions, stable funding is vital to orchestra sustainability. It is virtually impossible for any orchestra fulfilling a genuine, cultural mission that equally values all repertoires and serves a variety of audiences, to rely exclusively on box office revenues or on the sale of recordings or secondary products to balance its budget.
The case of the Rome opera, which fired all its 182 performers in both the orchestra and the chorus at the beginning of October this year, is emblematic of an extremely worrying trend. Although this decision may not be final as negotiation is still ongoing, the argument behind the sudden dismissal of all musicians in the Opera theatre of the capital of Italy—the very country that gave birth to Opera—falls naturally in place within a more global strategy aimed at discharging employers, whether public or private, whatever the sector, from any obligation towards workers (minimum wages, social benefits, working conditions, compliance with health and safety standards etc.).
The Rome Opera management presents the outsourcing of its orchestra and chorus as a modern and efficient management scheme. Following this scheme, musicians would be encouraged to form a new, independent, self-financed entity (the term “cooperative” has been used), which would (or might) be later contracted to provide the service that has been so far an internal resource. It goes without saying that the financial sustainability of such an entity would be highly uncertain. What is much more certain is the fact that its musicians, whether employed or contracted as independent service providers, would immediately face harsh competition with multiple ensembles established in countries with much lower standards (salaries, social protection, working conditions, cost of living).
The potential consequences on workers are already well known. In all likelihood, they would be forced to opt for a “status” of independent worker, which means an impossibility to benefit in practice from the protection recognized to workers by International Labour Organization (ILO) international conventions and the transposition thereof in national legislation. The FIM survey on the impact of competition rules on collective agreements, published in July 2013, examines the situation in this respect in a series of countries. In most cases, workers without an employment contract are de facto deprived of a number of fundamental rights, including in particular the right to be represented by a trade union and benefit from the protection of collective agreements, which are in this case regarded as price fixing between competing businesses.
Orchestra musicians are therefore facing a double challenge: the endangering of their orchestras as institutions when, for varying reasons, financial sustainability is at stake, and the (global) attack against their rights as workers by unscrupulous employers. We will not be able to tackle this double challenge unless we can rely on unfaltering solidarity and work relentlessly at all levels—local, national, and international—against these modern plagues.
Of course, social dialogue remains absolutely necessary at all levels. In May 2014, FIM and its sister federations (FIA and UNI-MEI) took part in a Global Dialogue Forum (GDF) at the ILO headquarters in Geneva, dedicated to the employment relationship in the media and culture sector. The conclusions of this GDF, which involved representatives from workers, employers and ILO Member States, are meant to be followed by concrete initiatives from all parties including the ILO Secretariat itself. Other consultations under the ILO umbrella are expected to be undertaken within the next 4 years, with a view to adopt, at a future stage, consensual guidelines or code of conduct on the characterization of the working relationship in the sector.
Beside this long-term approach, there is the immediate emergency: orchestras are on the verge of disappearing in Northern Ireland, Argentina, the US, Italy, Denmark… We deeply miss the artistic vision that wise and penetrating community leaders used to possess when they placed artistic excellence at the foundation of society. The International Orchestra Week that FIM organized last month was meant to awaken communities about attacks on orchestras that seem to be gaining ground every month. It is an opportunity to raise the profile and put forward the social and economical role of orchestras.
Our struggle is not only for those orchestras that are currently endangered. It is for all orchestras, including the well-established, healthy ones whose future could suddenly become uncertain tomorrow due to mismanagement, a drop in funding, outsourcing or otherwise.
More information on the FIM campaign is available on the campaign website.
Note: The author is the General Secretary of FIM (International Federation of Musicians)