Today’s “Peculiar Institution”
The symphony orchestra is surely the only institution which, in times of fiscal distress, blames the crisis on its product and then declares that the solution lies in downgrading the quality thereof! This phenomenon was never more glaring than in the recent contretemps in Louisville, an orchestra which, after a glorious period of making some of the finest recordings in the industry, has suffered years of financial struggle, including salary cuts, reductions of season length, etc.
Despite these rigors, the quality of the orchestra has not only held together, but actually improved. This state of affairs was, nevertheless, unacceptable to the new board chair and others in the community who bemoaned the need to continue to fund this remarkable community asset. Thus, as the inevitable deficits grew, it apparently occurred to those folks that the reason the fiscal challenges continued to mount might be that, despite all their previous efforts, they had somehow failed to downgrade the quality of the product! Finding new revenue sources, competent management, or imaginative marketing, was obviously not the solution, and, besides, it was too much trouble.
It was far more expeditious to find a way to ensure that this ensemble was brought down to a level they could fund without too much effort. Simply cut the size of the orchestra. Or at least cut the pay of musicians whose instruments were used less often than others. Yes, there was an idea! They would determine that 71 full-time musicians were unnecessary. Only 50 or so really played most of the time. The balance need not be paid a full-time salary for basically part-time work. And, of course, there is no reason to believe that a fifty percent reduction in income would result in those musicians looking for work somewhere other than Louisville. Moreover, even if that did occur, finding top quality musicians to replace them for a salary of $15,000 per year shouldn’t be a problem.
One might be tempted to think that maybe these folks really did understand the impact on the quality of the product but saw no other way to effectuate the savings in expense necessary to maintain any orchestra at all. But one would be wrong to come to that conclusion. When the musicians counter-proposed an offer that would have maintained all 71 full-time musicians and save the organization even more money than the reduction of size proposed by the board, the offer was rejected because it did not contain their two-tier idea. Clearly, to them, the only viable way to save the institution was to downgrade the quality of the very service it was in business to supply. Amazing!
This story now has an ending. The good news is that the board ultimately accepted a proposal from the union negotiating team that did not include a reduction in the size of the orchestra, nor a two-tiered, “A-B” type arrangement. The bad news, as has already been reported, was that the musicians figuratively swallowed hard, held their noses, and ratified a contract that contains severe reductions in income, loss of sick and personal days, and the loss of important working condition protections. Once again, musicians were forced to pay dearly for simply wanting to maintain the artistic integrity of the ensemble, aka the product.
On Early Negotiations
Below is Lenny’s response when someone asked his thoughts about a management request to begin negotiations earlier than normal.
Early negotiations don’t always result in an early settlement, which is what your board chair really wants. Early settlements require a good deal of trust on both sides.
If an early settlement is to be achieved the union side must believe (trust) that an offer designated as “final” really is such, or very close to it. That is the only way they will be willing to take it to the orchestra and recommend ratification some months before the expiration of the previous contract—because they trust that it is as good as it’s going to get even if they wait til the deadline. The orchestra has to trust that the committee is right about that and that there are good reasons not to drag it out til the end..
And. of course, the management has to trust that the committee will accept that an offer made some months before the deadline will, in fact, be as good as it’s going to get, and that there is more to be gained in the relationship than is being given up by not waiting till the very end.
It’s all a tall order I know, but there are some very good results to be gained from such a negotiation, if successful. The improvement in the relationship is immeasurable, the heightened morale in the orchestra and on the board, and even on a community which has grown tired of the “tri-annual fang-bearing.” If you can make all parties understand the risks and the potential rewards, it’s worth a shot.