The 2004‒05 fall season began on a somber note for our ICSOM orchestras that were encountering formidable challenges at the table. Opening concerts, usually filled with great excitement and anticipation, were hampered by exceptionally difficult and contentious negotiations, the likes of which many of us have never seen before.
All eyes in the orchestral world were on the events unfolding in Chicago, Cleveland, New York, Philadelphia, and elsewhere as musicians struggled to reach accord. Although each city and orchestra had their own set of issues to work through, there was an unusually pervasive theme to this round of negotiations. Salient similarities could be seen as managements and boards across the country spoke of “structural deficits” and the need for musicians to “share the pain.” Committees received financial reports from their managements and boards threatening imminent doom if musicians did not “step up to the table.” Also unusual was the number of similar proposals that would have effectively gutted contracts, rolling back essential working conditions gained through decades of hard work and unified resolve.
With the assistance of SSD Executive Director Laura Brownell, I organized five conference calls for the Chicago, Cleveland, National Symphony, New York Philharmonic, and Philadelphia negotiating committees. These calls were often late at night, often after long hours of negotiation, and sometimes after performances as well. These calls saw participation from committee chairpersons, local presidents, attorneys, and full committees.
Given the nature of negotiations, I feared there might be some hesitation to share sensitive information with other committees. This proved not to be the case. Our discussions were remarkably open and candid. Committee chairs were concerned not only with their own negotiations but also with the impact of proposals on other orchestras.
Wages, pensions, and health insurance were the focus of many calls. We spent a great deal of time, however, dealing with proposals that would undermine the ability of orchestras to perform at the high artistic standards our music directors, boards, managements, and audiences have come to expect. Proposals to reduce orchestra complements, to do away with service count provisions, and to institute new scheduling schemes were, in many ways, more unsettling than the uncharacteristically low wage and benefit proposals.
With the unprecedented voracity and determination shown in the attacks on several orchestras, the settlements might have been much worse. The negotiating committees, local presidents, attorneys, and, most of all, rank-and-file musicians deserve our collective appreciation. Their grit, resolve, and expertise not only preserved our standard of living but, more importantly, staved off the draconian proposals that would have greatly impeded the artistic successes of several of the world’s finest orchestras.
Committee chairs told me that the communication that occurred in those ICSOM calls was “invaluable and essential to our success” and “an integral tool in defending our orchestra’s core values.” Also expressed was the adage that “orchestra memberships continue to nurture this new spirit of collaboration not only during negotiation periods but also as day-to-day issues arise.”
I close this column with the following quote from Lew Waldeck. In 1983 Lew became the first director of the Symphonic Services Division. Regrettably, January 26 marked the first anniversary of his passing.
There is no end
To our imagination
When we are confronted
With the improbable.