Recently, the United Auto Workers (UAW) reached contract agreements with Ford, General Motors, and Fiat Chrysler. The essential details of these largely similar deals have been reported in the press. The UAW obtained wage increases of 3% to 4% annually through a combination of raises and bonuses, and there is now a pathway to elimination of the two-tier system in which employees hired after 2007 were paid a lower scale than their veteran colleagues. Health benefits are undiminished; in fact, some autoworkers will actually see improvements to their health care.
During the Great Recession, the autoworkers had agreed to major concessions to help their employers stay in business. Now automakers are again profitable. The new UAW contracts reflect an understanding that it is fair and right for employees to share in the recovery; that in light of the sacrifices those employees made during the crisis, it is appropriate for them to begin to recover some of what they gave up.
Symphony orchestra musicians experienced much of what the autoworkers went through during the economic crisis. Many musicians took big hits to their wages and benefits: salaries were slashed or frozen for years; musician complements were reduced; health care was gutted; pensions came under attack. Like the autoworkers, union musicians agreed to those give-backs in order to ensure their employers’ survival.
The crisis has passed. The economy is much improved and unemployment is low. In particular, the wealthy, who make up a large proportion of our audiences and donors, have done very, very well. (Any orchestra manager who now points to “the economy” as an excuse for poor financial performance should be laughed out of the room.) Many, if not most, ICSOM orchestras not only weathered the Great Recession, they are thriving.
Unlike the Big Three automakers, however, most symphony managements have not embraced the notion that their musicians should share in the recovery. Only a handful of recent contract settlements have featured genuinely healthy wage increases—and many of those contained offsetting benefit and work-rule cuts. Many musicians are still seeing only token increases in take-home compensation, or none at all. Musicians have to fight tooth and nail (often unsuccessfully) to restore positions that were lost in earlier rounds of complement cuts. Symphony managements and boards appear reluctant to acknowledge the basic fairness of reversing the draconian cuts that many musicians agreed to in the depths of the crisis. The concessions now seem to be viewed as permanent.
The most disturbing trend I see is “flatlining”: contract proposals where management demands that any raises must be paid for with cuts elsewhere (particularly to health care) and with work rule changes. (In a variation, management says, “here’s the money we have; you can put it wherever you like, but that’s all we can give you.”) That’s a great deal for the employer—labor expenses stay essentially frozen—but a lousy one for the musicians. Yes, inflation is generally low right now, but it sure doesn’t seem that way to a musician trying to pay for college tuition or buy a home in a hot market. The old adage is true: a freeze is a cut.
For the most part, these flatlining demands are unnecessary. Charitable giving in the arts has increased significantly. Many orchestras have found innovative ways to increase ticket sales. Health care costs—often the primary target of flatline demands—are not spiraling out of control. I have recently seen several health insurance renewals come in with no increases at all (and even some decreases).
I see flatlining as simply a new twist on an old story. For years we have heard, ad nauseam, about “structural deficits” and the “broken business model”. It is no secret that many managers and board members believe symphony musicians have been overpaid for decades. They would like nothing more than to ratchet down labor costs to a “sustainable” level—meaning, in their view, the point at which they know for certain they can raise enough money and sell enough tickets to cover expenses each and every year.
We saw this view put into action in Minnesota, Detroit, and Atlanta (among others). But the resulting labor strife was damaging, which may have led some managers and boards to rethink the ripping-off-the-Band-Aid approach of seeking massive cuts in one fell swoop. Make no mistake, they still want the cuts—they may just be taking the long view. Why go through the drama and damage of a nasty labor battle when the same result can be accomplished by simply keeping things flat for a period of several years? If revenues grow while expenses remain flat, that “structural deficit” will be gone in no time. The flatlining approach may also be easier to implement: musicians have a harder time building support for a work stoppage when salaries aren’t actually getting cut.
In medical jargon, of course, “flatlining” means the patient is dead. The results of a flatlining approach in symphony orchestras may not be so severe, but the consequences are nonetheless negative. Flatlining reflects a mentality that rejects the very notions of growth and ambition. It aspires to nothing but the status quo. Which begs the question: how can any organization possibly thrive, if the goal is to stand still?
Board members of symphony orchestras should be well acquainted with the necessity of growth. They are, for the most part, people with a record of success in business and finance. In that world, it would be unthinkable to accept a business model in which growth has no place. It would be equally ludicrous for a for-profit employer to assume that it can keep labor costs flat, year after year after year.
Growth needs to be built into an orchestra’s business model. That doesn’t mean musicians should expect huge salary increases every year. For those who made big concessions during the recession, restoration will take time. (For example, in the UAW contracts, the equalization of Tier 1 and Tier 2 workers is expected to take eight years.) Musicians know this. But flatlining cannot be the answer. It is bad for musicians, bad for the orchestras they serve, and an insult to those who sacrificed much to help those orchestras survive.
Of course, musicians sometimes have little choice but to accept bad contract proposals, at least in part. Every bargaining unit has to do what is best for itself, and no outsider (myself included) should ever second-guess those decisions. But if flatlining is indeed a growing trend, then we need to be prepared to oppose it.
This is my first column for Senza Sordino in my new role as ICSOM Counsel. I chose this topic because among the many concerns—legal and non-legal—of ICSOM musicians, so much depends on collective bargaining. Nearly every term and condition of your employment is the result of that process. You face a constant struggle to obtain contracts that enable you to make a decent living; none of you is paid as much as you deserve for your talents and skills. I look forward to fighting alongside you.