Two years ago we began sending Senza Sordino to every AFM local in the U.S. and Canada. We did this hoping that locals, regardless of whether they are home to any ICSOM, ROPA, or OCSM orchestras, would find our newsletter interesting and appreciate hearing about some of our issues, including the need for strong committees, support from our locals, and AFM support to keep us informed and help us face the constant challenges in our industry. In the last issue you read that our orchestras did not have all the help from the AFM that was due when we needed it most. As a group that pays considerable work dues to our locals and the Federation, we expect a certain level of services in return, just as we do as taxpayers.
As I contemplated this article, I found myself drawn to ICSOM’s history. Many of the changes that have affected our orchestras occurred just as I was beginning my professional orchestra career. At that time I had little understanding of the union and the role it would have in my future. As I became more involved in my orchestra, I found I wanted to be an advocate for it because there were so many forces working against us.
I joined the Nashville Symphony 25 years ago. At that time, my move from the Toledo Symphony was a lateral one, but there were promises being made to take Nashville to a higher level. Kenneth Schermerhorn, the former music director of the New Jersey Symphony and of the Milwaukee Symphony, had been hired as our new music director, and the former music director of the Birmingham (later Alabama) Symphony, Amerigo Marino, was our assistant conductor. However, not three years later, the stock market was in free fall, the economy was tanking, and my orchestra shut down and later filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
The year was 1988. While we were in bankruptcy, the Nashville Symphony hosted that year’s ROPA conference. It was the first ROPA conference I ever attended. I met many members of the AFM International Executive Board and the AFM president, Marty Emerson. I met officers from ICSOM and OCSM, and I heard a lot of sad stories about what was going on in the orchestra industry. 1988 was a bad year for orchestras. Vancouver, New Orleans, and Nashville—all three shut down that year. Oklahoma City had been out of work for more than a year. And to top it off, the Seattle Symphony, then an ICSOM orchestra, was about to leave the Federation.
Just one year later, as a ROPA delegate, I began to hear about trade divisions devoted to specific industries within a union. It was this discussion that led to the Roehl Report in 1990.
There are a number of people who have written about or wondered why the Players Conferences are so consumed with the Roehl Report, but I’m not sure if everyone remembers what led up to that time. Does anyone remember why ICSOM was formed in 1962? One is directly related to the other.
ICSOM was formed a little less than 50 years ago because orchestras did not have control over, or even input into, their own wages, benefits, and working conditions. Most local officers at the time had little or no knowledge of our industry, and many paid little attention to the concerns of the musicians they were supposed to represent. Even fewer allowed those musicians to participate in contract negotiations (and I use that term loosely).
There was already a network that allowed for communication among managers, largely due to their participation in the American Symphony Orchestra League (or ASOL, as the League of American Orchestras used to be called). Once ICSOM was formed, similar networking and communication was soon put to good use by musicians. As orchestra musicians were able to negotiate for the things they felt were important using skillful negotiators, they began to see better wages, benefits, and improved working conditions. Standards were set in the industry. A strike fund was established in 1970 to support orchestras during job actions. (Currently 69 orchestras contribute to the strike fund, which has paid more than $7.3 million in benefits to 50 orchestras.)
Sadly, it took ICSOM 20 years to gain the appointment of a full-time, dedicated symphony department staff member (Lew Waldeck, appointed in 1982). The guarantee of musician ratification of their agreements finally became an AFM bylaw in 1983. These gains were achieved through hard work, advocacy, and cooperation. Though sometimes slow to come, these changes were a direct result of democracy in action. Orchestra musicians became proactive and demanded that they be heard—not only by their locals, but by the Federation as well. (As an aside, I consider our AFM bylaws, which are always a work in progress, to be similar in at least one way to collective bargaining agreements. While not the primary purpose of either, both document previous abuses and show how those problems were dealt with.)
Over time, the AFM’s symphony department expanded, but the impetus for the greatest expansion to date was Seattle. Just one word, but it still has meaning for musicians in the orchestra world. The Seattle Symphony was an orchestra crying out for help. Its musicians were having a massive battle with their local and were getting no attention or resolution from the Federation. In the end, their only remedy was to leave. Seattle decertified the AFM and has never returned.
There were fixes after the fact. One was an AFM bylaw adopted in 1988 and expanded in 1989. It outlines obligations locals have to orchestras—including providing competent representation during negotiations, paying the reasonable expenses for contract administration, negotiations, grievances, and arbitrations, and paying to send one delegate to the annual conference of the appropriate Player Conference. Another was the Orchestra Services Program (OSP), which allows an orchestra to receive services directly from the Federation. This was created by IEB policy immediately after Seattle left and was later codified in the AFM bylaws. While some may consider the OSP as punitive to an affected local, it may be viewed as a last-ditch effort to keep an orchestra in the AFM when its musicians are having devastating problems with their local. Just recently, the OSP bylaw was tweaked, hopefully for the better.
None of this solved the whole problem, though, probably because many grievances stemmed from the implementation of a 1981 AFM bylaw that imposed a mandatory 1% work dues requirement on all local work, with a 0.5% work dues payment out of that directed to the Federation. The rationale for this was that per capita dues were no longer enough to sustain the Federation. But it created a situation where just 1.3% of AFM membership was paying a staggering 37% of the work dues supporting the Federation. That percentage has only increased over time. A new democratic remedy had to be identified. Enter Bill Roehl.
Reflecting upon the Roehl Report is important not only in light of ill-advised hints from some quarters that what has been in place for 15 years ought to be destroyed, but also because we need to be reminded of the continuing strength of its recommendations. Consider these words from the Roehl Report:
Unions do not operate in a vacuum. All unions have been and will continue to be influenced by political forces, socioeconomic conditions, changes in the work force, and management’s opposition to organizing.
The hallmark of a great union is its willingness to communicate, to change, to address the genuine needs of its members and prepare for the next generation. I understand President Emerson and members of the International executive board have endorsed the concept of restructuring the player conferences in order for [the] AFM to be even more effective in representing the membership in general and symphony and recording musicians in particular.
Still you might ask, why do we need this extra level of representation?
Intermediate bodies are formed as reasonable and rational groupings to correct problems in the relationships between local unions or between locals and their international union. In most instances these bodies are utilized to achieve a common objective in collective bargaining.
An AFM Players Conference is something like the Department of Professional Employees (DPE) in the AFL-CIO. (Incidentally, the current DPE general board chairman is AFM President Tom Lee.)
Some intermediate bodies are developed to pool staff resources to enforce contracts and negotiate, thereby helping local unions that can not meet the demands put upon them because of their meager resources. The structure of intermediate bodies in any international or national union inherently offers a means for mediating internal grievances. This mechanism provides a positive function that lessens the possibility of a secession movement.
What the Roehl Report and the AFM did by codifying a new structure in the AFM bylaws was to allow for a more democratic representation that could present a united voice. It strengthened the voices of symphonic musicians interacting with their locals and confirmed the need for musicians to have both a voice and a vote.
By 1989, certain objectives had already been embraced:
- Players Conferences should have non-voting representation at AFM Conventions, including the right to appear before committees to defend legislation.
- Each Players Conference should have three delegates’ expenses paid according to AFM bylaws.
- Players Conferences should have the right to introduce legislation.
- Locals should be obligated to provide a minimum level of required services.
- There should be a mechanism for an orchestra to be placed in the OSP even if their local objects (the musicians, too, will have a voice).
The Roehl Report built upon previous accomplishments and went a little bit further:
- The names of the symphony and the recording departments were changed to Symphonic Services Division (SSD) and Electronic Media Division (EMSD).
- The administrator of each department was designated as a director and as an assistant to the AFM president. Both positions are appointed by the AFM President.
- Steering committees for each division were established to serve as advisors to each division. The heads of ICSOM, OCSM, and ROPA advise SSD. A small group of RMA officers (as determined by their conference) plus one symphonic representative advise EMSD.
- The Player Conferences Council (PCC) was established. The PCC would meet with the IEB at mutually established times “to exchange information and ideas on appropriate subjects regarding the good and welfare of the American Federation of Musicians.”
- The Structure Committee (that started this discussion) would continue to research structural and operational improvements within the AFM.
Since these changes were incorporated into the AFM bylaws, they have been improved upon to try to ensure that everyone works together for the good and welfare of the AFM. PCC members have served on AFM committees since that time and have been advocates for many issues, including the formation of the Locals’ Conferences Council (LCC) and of an official Freelance Division. (It should be noted that no freelance work dues are paid to the Federation; only symphonic, recording, and travel and touring agreements are required to pay dues to the Federation.)
Considerable misinformation and even lies are being spread about ICSOM. Let us set the record straight: ICSOM is interested in enhancing the participation of working musicians in the governance of the union. That’s how we work with our orchestras, and it should be the same with our union. More will be accomplished by an open and honest dialogue with a real interest toward understanding and dealing with problems than by the creation of constant roadblocks. Mr. Roehl closed his report by saying:
There is no “quick fix.” Any long-term structural problems in the International in membership growth and perceived problems of the Player Conferences will not go away overnight…. These problems will change as a coherent program begins to develop.
I think my colleague, Tom Hall, said it best in his book, ICSOM: 40 Years of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians: “Despite some opinion within ICSOM’s ranks that disaffiliation from the Federation would better serve the interests of orchestra musicians, the organization has, from its earliest meetings and in its statement of purpose formulated in September 1962, espoused the principle of working with and within the AFM to accomplish change.”