This has been a very difficult year for our orchestras. We are barely into the new season, and I have produced more than 15 settlement bulletins, 7 of which are for revised or amended agreements (and at least one, Honolulu, is already out of date). Out of last season’s 29 bulletins, 13 were for revised or amended agreements (many came in as we approached last summer’s ICSOM Conference). Sadly, some of those amended bulletins have already come up for another pass.
After Michael Kaiser’s wonderful presentation at the ICSOM Conference last August, I continue to marvel at the state of our organizations and how they are run. And I have to ask why our managers and boards can’t do better. I’m not saying there aren’t dire issues our orchestras are facing, but there has to be some accountability for the treatment of musicians in some of these situations. And, yes—I am saying that in some cases managers and boards have failed to be prudent caretakers of their organizations and are now trying to take advantage of their musicians as a remedy.
Colleagues ask me, “Does the management realize they don’t have a job without us?” Sometimes I, too, begin to wonder if they get it. Managers and boards need to treat their musicians with more care.
Let me digress for a moment. This summer in Dayton, I attended ROPA’s 25th-anniversary conference—an event that was honored by a resolution we passed at the ICSOM Conference. (As it happens, I joined the Nashville Symphony the very same year that ROPA was formed.) While preparing our resolution honoring ROPA’s 25th year, I was amazed that so many of ROPA’s founding orchestras had been able to achieve what we all seek: better wages, benefits, and working conditions. Some ROPA orchestras saw so much improvement that they applied for membership in ICSOM.
These are the charter members of ROPA: Austin Symphony Orchestra, Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, Colorado Springs Symphony Orchestra, Columbus Symphony Orchestra, Florida Orchestra, Fort Wayne Philharmonic, Fort Worth Symphony, Grand Rapids Symphony, Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra, Memphis Symphony Orchestra, Nashville Symphony Orchestra, New Mexico Symphony Orchestra, Omaha Symphony Orchestra, Philharmonic Orchestra of Florida (Florida Philharmonic), Richmond Symphony, Sacramento Symphony, San Jose Symphony, Spokane Symphony, Tulsa Philharmonic, Virginia Symphony, and Wichita Symphony Orchestra. From this list, the following eight orchestras have joined ICSOM during the past 25 years: Charlotte, Columbus, Florida, Fort Worth, Jacksonville, Nashville, Florida Philharmonic, and Virginia. While more may join ICSOM in the future, there will also always be new orchestras that wish to join ROPA because of the rich communication it offers its member orchestras. ROPA has expanded its ranks to now represent 79 orchestras. ICSOM, ROPA, and OCSM have a shared communication network through the distribution of settlement bulletins and rosters, and our top officers share wonderful working relationships based on mutual respect and genuine friendship.
As I consider the vast differences among our orchestras, from the most highly paid ICSOM orchestras to the smallest per-service ROPA orchestras, I have to marvel that every one of our orchestras emanates from humble backgrounds, when not a single orchestra season offered year-long employment. Every orchestra strives to improve its situation, and because of the unity and shared knowledge our player conferences offer, this continues to occur with every contract negotiated. The success of one orchestra is celebrated by all orchestras; but the abuse to any of our colleagues is something we all take to heart. It evokes our sympathy and desire to reach out because we all have been in dire situations once upon a time ourselves. And let us not forget that, for all the successes in ICSOM and ROPA and OCSM, there are those who would try to tear down those successes—look at some of the ICSOM settlement bulletins I have prepared in the past few months; look at New Mexico, and Grand Rapids.
My heart breaks when I see these proud orchestras treated with such disregard by their managers, boards, and others. One ICSOM orchestra continued to work despite two years of late payrolls (sometimes months late), but to receive payment for work already completed, they had to agree to cut their annual wages going forward. And now that same orchestra may face bankruptcy due to the lack of vision by their board and management who did not have the wherewithal to raise the capital necessary to sustain this orchestra that has withstood far more difficult times than these. At least two other orchestras have faced draconian budget cuts that have changed the face of their orchestras. Another orchestra’s musicians took it upon themselves to voluntarily take concessions before management asked, while others have agreed to major cuts or wage freezes; all of which were considered by the musicians to be donations and tokens of their dedication to their organizations. Where is that same dedication on the part of the managers and boards?
Despite all these positive actions by musicians, some boards and managers have responded with threats of bankruptcy to intimidate musicians to comply with demands for even further givebacks. In other cases there are examples of incredible lack of vision, lack of commitment, lack of community building, lack of faith in the organization and the community to support it, lack of imagination, and sometimes flat-out laziness. I guess what makes me so angry is that no one is more concerned about the future and the health of their orchestras than the musicians. When those who are the caretakers of these orchestras behave in such an irresponsible manner, it makes me furious! We need managers and boards that inspire and are inspired to support their musicians!
What about the nonsense in New Mexico? Talk about bad-faith bargaining! The orchestra was still in talks—but “to save money,” management unilaterally cut the musicians’ health insurance and then waited ten days to tell them about it. In addition, management contacted the unemployment office in an effort to cut off the musicians’ benefits. Now, the union is contesting the New Mexico Labor Force’s decision to force the musicians to pay back the unemployment benefits they received for the time the season was “postponed.” It’s surprising that these musicians have any desire to work for their orchestra after such scandalous treatment.
What makes me sadder still is the recent efforts by New Mexico’s board to cut musicians salaries by a much larger percentage than the staff (and let us not forget the staff have no real jobs without the orchestra). The same board audaciously stripped the musicians’ proposal to set benchmarks for the board’s fundraising efforts (similar to Utah’s recent settlement that holds the board responsible for their stated goals) from the board’s last, best, and final offer to the musicians. At the end of all this incredibly atrocious behavior by the management and the board, they did accept the musicians’ benchmarks and accountability provisions. However, the musicians were forced to vote on a contract that reduced their salaries by the amount of income they received for performing the Nutcracker with the New Mexico Ballet. The musicians were told that if they did not accept the agreement, the board would vote on bankruptcy three days after the ratification vote.
While the contract was ratified, major healing must occur between the board and the orchestra. The board has much to answer for. They forced cuts on the musicians that were nearly two-and-one-half times that of staff members (and the staff was paid during the entire lockout)—this from a board that in previous difficult times would have worked with the musicians to formulate a plan that included equality of sacrifice and shown a willingness to involve all the constituents. The musicians, on the other hand, are working on the oversight and accountability mandated by the new agreement with their newly formed audience association.
Then there is Grand Rapids. The orchestra and the press made much of the fact that their new president/CEO is a former member of the orchestra. Yet, when it really counted, when it was time to think outside the box, the management and the board retreated to small, regressive thinking and demanded deep cuts in salaries and pension. The musicians begged their management to embrace many of the ideas in Michael Kaiser’s book. Instead, the ideas were pushed aside, and communication with the orchestra seems to be at an all-time low. While portions of Michigan are truly hurting economically, that is not the case in Grand Rapids. Ironically, one week after the Grand Rapids Symphony board approved a $900,000 cut to the budget, the Grand Rapids Press reportedly featured such comments as “Fresh art ideas will keep funds flowing, expert says” and “He calls cutting budgets a recipe for disaster” (reporting on Michael Kaiser’s visit to Grand Rapids). In the end, all the national attention caused the board to amend their final proposal, though the orchestra did not achieve restoration of previous contract terms. The board, with its eagerness to cut rather than look for other solutions, disappointed the musicians. Meanwhile, concert attendance is at record levels, and many goals are being met or exceeded.
In too many situations we have had to become our own public advocates because our managers and boards are so fearful, so unwilling to take chances. Instead, they retreat and do their organizations more harm than good—setting themselves up for years of playing catch-up and trying to reinvigorate and gain back their audiences and contributors. I find it disheartening that our leaders cannot think big or that they refuse to believe their communities will support all their good works, especially as the primary arts educators in our communities. (But that’s another topic for another time!)
Of course, not all managements are guilty. Several are forward-looking and have maintained good relationships with musicians during difficult times. To those managers and boards who look to their musicians with respect and ask for help rather than demanding with threats—my hat is off to you. All our orchestras are aware that, no matter the size, what happens to one of us affects us all.