ICSOM was created because symphony musicians of the late 1950s realized that they were a specialized group within the AFM that needed to be able to represent themselves in contract negotiations. That right we won now allows us to shape our contracts to suit our special needs in working conditions, salary, pension, medical and instrument insurance, and employment security. We fought hard for this recognition. We won our battle, and we formed ICSOM.
There was a camaraderie back then that grew out of many “us-against-them” battles. We not only had to fight our managements and our locals, but the AFM as well. We worked hard through the years, gaining ground at a snail’s pace, but at each turn we became more influential. Never once did we let down our guard. We were united all the way. We spoke with one very clear voice, and we secured a place in the union that carried some political clout and great influence in national contract negotiations.
We won the battle of acceptance. Some larger cities started to support symphony orchestras in new ways, understanding that we needed good wages, secure pensions, comprehensive medical insurance, and working conditions that promote artistic excellence. Even smaller orchestras began to see a change in attitude. By the late 1960s, eight orchestras had 52-week seasons, recording contracts, European tours, and a living wage. By 1972, when I joined the Saint Louis Symphony, there were seventeen orchestras with 52-week seasons, and all of those orchestras were finding ways to record. We are still working hard to secure dignity and artistic recognition for every musician in every orchestra. That is why there is ICSOM. That is why we must be vigilant.
A danger of the autonomy orchestras won can surface when we forget the lessons of the past and the fights ICSOM fought. Independence can make orchestra leadership myopic. They can ignore colleagues in other orchestras and think only about what is good for them and their orchestra. This can threaten hard-won gains that have served musicians elsewhere well.
One principle ICSOM has always stood for is that we, as a fraternity of highly trained artists, support one another whenever possible. We have an obligation to help our industry as a whole, not just our own orchestra. This is an art form that needs public support and nurturing. That can best be gained when we ourselves set the standards to be met and adhere to them, even at personal sacrifice.
That brings me to the present and to a controversy now upon us. Even though AFM bylaws require approval by the International President’s Office (or Vice President from Canada) before media provisions are presented for ratification, some musicians’ negotiation teams have neglected this. That has created some heated dialogue between musicians during the last six years and has unfortunately given managements the initiative to “divide and conquer” during tough contract talks. Some orchestras that have followed the bylaw are now quite angry for good reason. Their ability to secure media contracts might be jeopardized because it will be cheaper to hire the orchestras that have negotiated lower “scale” minimums. Also, their credibility with their management is at stake. What do they tell their management after holding firm to a national position, only to have another orchestra break rank soon thereafter? This situation is precisely the type of controversy the bylaw was created to guard against, and precisely the situation that ICSOM has been fighting to prevent.
Even though President Lee did approve some of these media provisions, some were submitted at the end of lengthy negotiations, after a settlement had been reached that hinged on those provisions. That is the equivalent of asking for permission to take a car after you have returned from a long mile trip in it. The intent of the bylaw is to have the language approved before an agreement is made. Not adhering to what the bylaw intends puts other negotiations and other negotiators’ trustworthiness at stake. As has already happened, managements will say they were lied to when they were told that a national position was inviolable. As you can imagine, this situation promotes mistrust, and that encourages management to drive wedges between musicians, ICSOM, and the Federation.
So what is the call to action? Chairpersons of orchestra committees, ask your ICSOM delegate what was learned of this situation at the last ICSOM Conference. Call Bill Foster, chairperson of the ICSOM Media Committee, and ask him to help you get what you want. Before going into negotiations, and certainly before coming to agreement on media issues, contact SSD and have a dialogue about what’s happening and how best to approach special requests. Make certain that your ICSOM delegate is in contact with ICSOM leadership and with other orchestras. Make sure that your negotiating committee avails itself of those resources. Finally, before going into negotiations, commit to upholding the standards that we, as a musician community, set for ourselves.
ICSOM has always been the leader in fairness and equality within our ranks. We are not isolated when we are in trouble, and we are not isolated in our agreements. We are colleagues, and only through solidarity of purpose will we all flourish.