The following tale is a dramatization of recent life in a certain midwestern orchestra. Names have been changed to protect the innocent from lawsuits. Barely.
March 1, 2005. Dawn in the dusty town of St. Louee Gulch. As the sun rises slowly over a wasted musical community, bits of light glance off rusted hopes, dented dreams, shattered illusions. A lonely bird, pipin’ fragments of a once great melody, mourns quietly over broken bodies scattered ’bout the silent streets, carnage from one of the more bitterly fought battles in recent musical labor history.
The inhabitants awake dazed ’n battered, preparin’ to head back to work for the first time in two long months. The joy of music makin’ which made their workplace so special for so many years, now seems as far away as the burnin’ orb pitilessly illuminatin’ the wreckage of their once bustlin’ orchestra. Most stumble out, wonderin’ what the hell has happened, and why?
For many, the sadness is swept away by seethin’ waves of anger. How did the despicable Rattams Gang git control of their unsuspectin’ town? What’s the Gang’s long range plan? Will there be anyone left musically alive? Finally and most importantly, how can we get rid of these sons of ——es?
This whole sorry midwestern tale probably had its roots some 10 years earlier. The orchestra was pretty much saddled up ’n ridin’, with tours, recordings, many different concert series, a purty full compliment a’ players, cattle drives to Carnegie Hall, and the general spirit that what any other orchestra could do, St. Louis could do, maybe even a little better. It was quick on the draw, if a little wild in the aim, and it was seen as a time of growth and prosperity. There were minor grumblings ’bout a deficit, but the financial mule of the Symphony seemed to shamble along from year to year without too much snortin’.
As the saloon doors of staff did their inevitable swing, a new outfit of administrative, marketing, and financial hands began cleanin’ out the stables of their predecessors. The Fiscal Experts suddenly started shoutin’: “Stampede! Help! The Endowment’s runnin’ away! Stop it! Ever’body, stop what you’re doin’ and help, for gosh sakes!”
And so everyone did. The contract was hauled out and skinned, the staff herd was cut in half, the orchestra was cut down, the season and the pay were put on starvation rations. In the general atmosphere of panic and emergency, a spirit of mutual interest prevailed in trying to pull the orchestra ranch through this crisis. A solemn promise by the sheriff, to bring the orchestra back to full acreage once the endowment was back in the saddle, kept the orchestra’s hopes up through the tough times. The orchestra continued to git smaller as people hung up their spurs or jumped to different outfits. But it was bidin’ its time, with its spirit and idealism largely intact.
This was only a few months after that fateful day in December of 2000 when Dandy Aylor stepped up onto the stage with a $40 million bag of gold, announcin’ it was the Symphony’s if’n it could match it. You could hardly hear yerself pizzicato with the hullabaloo that erupted. “Gold! Gold! I’ve discovered gold!” Everyone ran around plum loco ’n starry eyed, staggerin’ from one press conference ta the next. So now, finally, with imminent financial doom staring them in the face, did everyone get down to work raising a serious endowment. There were just a couple a’ lil’ hitches. The annual operatin’ budget and the season were cut by about 25%, and a banker guy who was brought in as a financial sheriff, Andy Rattams, took over the whole joint. A few orchestra hands wondered why nobody ever went to jail for the accountin’ hanky panky. But whoever they were, they were long gone into the sunset. So everyone just tightened their belts ’n got down to work.
As it turned out, Sheriff Rattams had a real different management style than the other hombres who’d passed through. What he said went. A spirit of mutual cooperation and interest meant you did what he said. Period. Might as well shoot yerself in the haid as try ’n convince Rattams to change his plan. He began pourin’ ever’ last cent down that deep endowment well, and the big Aylor grant was matched six whole months early. A bunch more money was raised, but instead of puttin’ a little bit a’ that cash into restorin’ the orchestra salaries like he promised, he poured it right in after the other moolah and told the orchestra to shove it.
To get his way, he snookered the whole symphony board into believin’ every last figure of the gloom ’n doom prediction (four years till busted ’n broke ’n bitin’ the dust). His “kill-’em-to-save-’em” medicine was part a’ the package from the very beginnin’, but he covered it up with all sorts a’ flowery talk ’bout preservin’ artistic greatness ’n stuff. The tone-deaf son-of-a-gun had the joint by the oysters and was a’ swingin’ it over his head like the biggest lassoo ya’ ever saw. As that gold started bein’ roped in ($136 million of it), ’n Rattams started sittin’ on top of it, they was no way he was gonna spend even a dime to feed his poor horse. It just twernt in his basic banker nature. He’d ride that mount till it dropped, then just git another one.
So “negotiations” started on the new orchestra contract. The first meetin’ was back in December of ’03 and was called a “plannin’ session” by the management. The plan was to work without lawyers till we come to an agreement. By the third meetin’ it became purty clear that Rattams’ plan was to get us to do exactly what he wanted. That was basically to commit to separate plans that depended on the amount of new guaranteed funding they happened ta cook up.
Ya see, the Missoura territory has this funny law whereby the voters let themselves be taxed ta support specific nonprofit institutions; it’s called the Zoo-Museum District (ZMD), and the Symphony was makin’ another run at gittin’ in, ’coz it would set ’em up purty fer life. (They done got thar butts whupped the first time they tried it, when the voters thought they was all a bunch a’ Lexus-drivin’ West County folk. Imagine that!) So what the Rattams Gang wanted the orchestra to do was commit to one plan with ZMD and to a different one without it, in the unlikely event it didn’t quite work out. (Guess which one sucked rattlesnake eggs.)
Mostly, the “plannin’ sessions” were just brain fryin’ hours spent listenin’ ta Their Financial Predictions, ta the line “WE CAN’T SPEND WHAT WE DON’T HAVE” (say this line like a robot, while payin’ cash fer yer Lexus), an’ ta ever’one’s favorite: “I’m only the messenger.”
And so the “plannin’ sessions” from January to July of ‘04 turned out ta be just “planin’ sessions”—slowly planin’ slices of intelligence and good will offa’ the folks forced ta sit through ’em. Then the musicians brought in their big-time lawyer, good ol’ Doc Leibowitz. Surprise, surprise, the management decided not ta go the ZMD route. (It costs ’em big bucks to stick sumthin’ on the election ballot. Even though it was all new management folks about to choke on that same piece of gristle, somebody musta’ pounded some sense inta thar thick skulls.) So Rattams claimed he had nothin’ ta offer. He’d try’n raise some dough by December ’04, he said, so he wanted to nail down the other contractual stuff. ’Course, the good guys were smart ’nuff ta know that ain’t how ya do it. Ya gots ta tackle the hard parts first so’s ya got sumthin’ ta give up if ya needs to.
In September, the Gang offered $61,000—a great deal if yer partial to a 17% pay cut on top of the one ya already done been swallowin’ fer four years. Here we were havin’ that “retention bonus” baloney shoved in our faces agin. The retention bonus, accordin’ to the bad guys, was the “extra” $12,900 on top on our “true salary” of $61,000. Usin’ this logic, the Rattams Gang was offerin’ just a little superficial wage-freeze wound. Unfortunately, the bullet woulda felt like it was goin’ in a heck of a lot deeper. Surprise, surprise, the orchestra voted it down. Met once more in October. Decided to cancel all meetings til management had sumthin’ ta offer.
On December 27 the meetings began again, just about the time I dragged myself inta the hospital with an aorta about ta blow. A week later I stumbled out, with a pig valve in my chest ’n some purty impressive doctor tattoos on my abdomen—just in time to find my health insurance and paycheck missin’. Now those hombres were gonna make us dance, pardner!
At this point we should tell ya ’bout another character in this horse opry goin’ by the name of Losin “Starve-em-out” Sim. By firin’ a few other people in the way, Rattams (by now referred to as “Big Rat”) set her up as orchestra manager. Well, Calamity Sue, as she became known, was kinda’ like the wolf guardin’ the chicken coop. She’d shoot her horse to make it go faster. In terms a’ the orchestra she was in charge of, she done come up with some a’ the nastier things that went on. Once the orchestra started diggin’ in its heels ’n circlin’ the wagons, Calamity Sue mighta’ cooked their children up as soup bones if’n she got the chance. She were one fearsome varmint.
On January 3 the orchestra turned down the “last, best, and final offer,” which was the same fertilizer bein’ offered up on a different dirty platter. I actually made it to the meetin’, lookin like a piece a’ bad hide. But I added my vote to the virtually unanimous one there, and we started settin’ the various work stoppage committees into gear. Doc Leibowitz was purty confident management was engaging in a lockout, with the auditions bein’ cancelled without warnin’ and the locks bein’ changed on us even before we voted. So we called it a lockout, simple folk that we be.I have ta admit, I missed a lotta’ the next coupla’ months. Just couldn’t stay outta the hospital coz a’ some nasty post-surgery infection. I reckon it was a purty special time for the orchestra, though, with all the great concerts they put on, little ’n big, ’n potlucks, ’n newsletters, ’n website, ’n tons of amazin’ support (like $120,000 in cold hard cash) from other ICSOM outfits. Letters in support of us piled up at the newspapers, ’specially after they cut our health insurance off. Evidently that’s a bit of a sore point fer a lotta’ folks right now. By the way, the management had darn good lawyers. Somebody over there figured out how exposed their legal posteriors were when they cut off insurance to the people on medical leave.
In just a few weeks I had my insurance back, along with a few other hurtin’ buddies. A missed opportunity to haul the Gang off to the pokey in front a’ TV cameras?
But it was still a tough time. The Rattams Gang was actually turning down donations towards musician salaries so’s they could stick it to us. All in all, it was pretty outrageous what they got away with. Some folks think it were personal fer Rattams. He’d heard that Doc Leibowitz was a management buster, and damned if he was gonna lose to Leibowitz, even if Rattams lost the support a’ the orchestra and the whole rest a’ the town.
Towards the end a’ February, the Rattams Gang made their biggest move. Waitin’ until Doc Leibowitz was outa town tendin’ ta some other patient, in through the back door burst the local union, with a preliminary NLRB ruling (that it was an illegal strike and not a lockout) held to their sorry heads. Sittin’ down at a table on Thursday night, February 24, the meetin’ was presided over by the president of the St. Louee Labor Council, showin’ his mean jaw and packin’ a nine millimeter at his hip (true). The agreement that came outa’ that meetin was shoved in front a’ the orchestra on Saturday mornin’ at the union hall (a room ’bout the size of a three-stall outhouse, with matchin’ air circulation). The ballots were already in the mail ta everyone. As the meetin’ ground on, with various orchestra business bein’ conducted in preparation for returnin’ ta work, it began ta dawn on a few people that we weren’t actually talkin’ much about the contract, ’specially ’bout how this agreement had suddenly been reached. High noon approached, and along with it a feelin’ a’ desperation. People were gittin’ up ’n leavin’ for various commitments like family and teachin’. A handful a’ brave souls stuck around to bang it out, and these people larned more of the details ’bout how this came about. I think that, just about to a person, these people voted NO. There’s a good chance that if only a dozen more people had stuck around, that contract and that gang would not’ve survived.
But they didn’t, and the contract passed, and the Andy Rattams Gang is still in charge.
The papers seem ta think everythin’s all hunky-dory now that we’re back ta makin’ great music ’n all. And we are glad ta be playin’ agin, ’specially with that rarest a’ breeds, a good conductor. But it’s a long, underpaid summer, with a bunch a’ folks with memories ’n motives. This Gang better watch it’s sorry behinds. We’re thinkin’ those swingin’ doors’ll be helpin’ em on thar way.
Christian Woehr is the ICSOM delegate and a violist for the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. Born in Dallas, Texas, to two founding members of the modern Dallas Symphony, he and his five string-playing siblings grew up as “orchestra brats,” following their musician parents from orchestra to orchestra, mostly the Pittsburgh and Chautauqua Symphony Orchestras. His sister, Mary, is now a violist in the Baltimore Symphony. Chris is a prolific composer, and the last remaining non-driver in the SLSO.