In 2007, the Utah Symphony had just signed a newly negotiated CBA, the symphony was embarking on an exciting search for a new Music Director, and things were on a positive trajectory.
In the late fall things began to change. I recall when our CEO, Melia Tourangeau, announced to the orchestra that as a result of the financial crisis, the situation was so dire that they might not be able to make payroll. Management asked for a reopener of the recently settled CBA, but rather than put all the working conditions and benefits back on the table, the musicians and the symphony negotiated a series of several waivers over the ensuing seasons that dealt solely with wages. All told the musicians gave back $3.8 million in salary and benefits, and by 2015 we were finally at the base wage we originally negotiated for 2010. Over that same time period, staff and management gave back approximately $1 million, and both CEO Melia Tourangeau and Music Director Thierry Fischer gave back portions of their salaries. Though it was a painful process for everyone, it was viewed as a shared sacrifice for the long-term health of the organization.
In the years since, the Utah Symphony Musicians began setting aside more money and working on communication strategies, and Local 104 hired a new attorney. Because we expected an unprecedented amount of cleanup in our working conditions, and we knew that there were many ambiguities in our contract language which created misunderstandings, we anticipated a lengthy and potentially contentious negotiation. As a result, the musicians elected our negotiating team 18 months early.
Musicians weren’t the only ones anticipating a time-consuming negotiation. Over a year in advance, our CEO approached the Orchestra Committee and asked if we would be willing to use the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS) for the upcoming negotiations.
After several meetings with FMCS mediator Kevin Hawkins, and with the support of our attorney John Axelrod, the negotiating committee agreed to use Kevin at the bargaining table. As a committee we didn’t reach the decision lightly, and each of us on the negotiating committee came to the decision to engage the FMCS mediator for different reasons. (While the financial considerations didn’t play into this decision, it is worth noting that the services of the FMCS are free.) It became clear through our training sessions that neither side could have absolutes or must-haves, and that having Kevin present in negotiations would encourage flexibility from both sides.
Together, the union and management negotiating teams set ground rules for the negotiations and goals for what we wanted from our CBA. We agreed to have Kevin Hawkins at the table for the difficult topics, and that we wouldn’t use our attorneys at the table unless they were needed. Rather than exchanging complete proposals, we agreed to prioritize articles for discussion. We agreed that both sides wanted clear, unambiguous contract language and that our ultimate goal was to attain the highest possible artistic product. Whenever we would find ourselves stuck in a discussion that wasn’t moving forward, we could return to our ground rules and goals to refocus and direct ourselves down a more productive path. While our discussions were not always easy, and there were certainly moments of high tension and conflict, this manner of negotiating helped us stay on task.
Combined with our committee’s intense preparation, this became a process that ensured thorough discussion and understanding of each side’s viewpoint and a sincere willingness to listen. We were able to stay focused and accomplish an incredible amount of work ranging from simple housekeeping to the creation of brand new language. We completed our negotiations three months early and reached a balanced agreement that reflects positive gains for both sides. It’s a process that worked well for us this time around and helped us move beyond past problems and look forward to the future.
There is hope that the trust and mutual respect we built will serve as a model for our future negotiations. With this new CBA, and a strong financial and artistic position, we are about to embark on our 75th year and beyond with excitement, enthusiasm, and a feeling that we are once again on a positive trajectory.