The Negotiation Process: A Historical Timeline

The manner in which contract negotiations have developed over the past 50 years has been fast and furious.  Even the term “traditional bargaining” is in itself, not very accurate since it’s only been used for the past 40 years or so.

Adaptistration People 018Before then, musicians didn’t even have a voice in how their contracts were negotiated; it was all handled between the AFM local union officers and the orchestra managers. By and large, those union officers saw the orchestra musicians as the highest paying job in town and they should be satisfied with that, so there was little desire to push beyond what managers said was possible.

But the orchestra musicians held a different view and believed there was far more potential. As a result, they began to push for direct representation within the union structure and between federal case law and the good old belief that people have the right to self determination there have been some major changes over the years.

Here’s a historical timeline to help illustrate how orchestra musicians have garnered a larger stake over the past several decades in negotiating the collective path for their own future (portions of the historical data were obtained from the ICSOM and AFM websites in addition to a telephone interview I conducted with retired orchestra executive Peter Pastreich).


Before 1960, only the Boston Symphony musicians participated directly in the negotiation of their own contract and no orchestras had the opportunity to approve the contract negotiated for them by union representatives. In turn, those representatives were often ill-informed about the respective orchestra’s matters and concluded agreements which incorporated token salary increases and minimal improvements in working conditions. No orchestra could hire its own attorney or participate in negotiations.


In 1962 most musicians in major orchestras were employed little more than six months annually at a yearly salary that was barely a living wage due to the lack of direct participation in negotiating their own contracts. Then, in 1962 a federal judge ruled that orchestras with an annual budget over $1 million were subject to being interstate commerce and therefore fell under protection of the national Labor relations act:

Employees shall have the right to self-organization to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.

Orchestra musicians could no longer be left out of the bargaining process and orchestra managers began negotiating directly with musician elected representatives. Shortly after that ruling in 1962 the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) was formed to facilitate organized discussion about musician livelihood issues and problems in the field.


Shortly after ICSOM becomes a recognized conference of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) in 1969, case law continued to be tested and expanded regarding the musicians’ rights to represent themselves in bargaining and collectively approve the terms of their contracts. Musicians also began to negotiate national recording and media agreements.


Contract ratification rights by musicians became a part of the national AFM bylaws in 1983 and the decade was defined by a series of bitter work stoppages throughout dozens of orchestras thereby increasing public awareness to the importance of labor relations. Increased growth throughout smaller and mid budget size orchestras led to the formation of a new AFM conference, the Regional Orchestra Players Association (ROPA), along with a national Symphonic Services Division (SSD) that provided pooled resources and negotiators to serve the unique needs of those musicians, many of which were not employed on a salaried basis but were still required to negotiate their own agreements.

The end of the decade was punctuated by the formation of a new musicians union, the International Guild of Symphony, Opera and Ballet Musicians (IGSOBM), which was formed by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra musicians after their decision to leave the AFM over frustrations with dues and lack of responsiveness and service. Within the IGSOBM model, orchestra musicians absorbed an even higher degree of responsibility by assuming the traditional role of direct representation along with duties traditionally carried out by the Local AFM office.


Numerous work stoppages continued throughout the decade among the largest orchestras in the country, including Philadelphia, San Francisco, New York, and Atlanta. By the end of the decade, the resulting fixed labor expenses helped spawn record levels of revenue generation and financial growth through the field. Increased growth among ROPA ensembles cemented the need for affordable and competent negotiators and related support infrastructure.


A short lived period of comparative stability and sharp growth was interrupted by a recession following the events of 9/11 and again during 2009 in the wake of the great economic downturn. Nearly every professional orchestra agreed to some form of economic concession and the pooled bargaining resources and SSD negotiators became increasing stretched thin due to a sharp increase in the number of emergency bargaining situations.


Perhaps the most dichotic decade since the 1960s, labor disputes reached fevered levels in both frequency and acrimony due to hard-line positions adopted by some boards and executive administrators while some orchestras entered into unprecedented growth cycles. Many of the high profile labor attorneys with decades of experience hired by ICSOM level musicians retired or passed away and neither ICSOM, ROPA, nor SSD have yet to produce and implement any organized training program for elected musician representatives. The decade has also been defined by an increase in the number of agreements ratified that include disparity terms for substitute musicians and grandfather clauses that provide degraded economic conditions for future musician hires.

In just a few short decades the business has seen musicians move from playing no role to an absolute role in how they shape their work place and their wages.

And you can still find many players in orchestras today that lived as professionals during those days before direct representation. In the July, 2004 edition of Senza Sordino, Len Leibowitz recalls a comment made by Irving Segal, past ICSOM president and Philadelphia Orchestra violist. Irving said,

“I never thought I would see the day that I would be earning [a living] just for playing the viola.”

If musicians didn’t stand up for themselves back in 1962 then Irving probably wouldn’t have ever realized that day.

I hope that this historical perspective has provided you with some useful background to the ever changing landscape of collective bargaining and how it applies to contract negotiations.

I invite you to return to future installments where I’ll begin to examine some of the specific examples of contract negotiations that have served as the benchmark for change in the industry and see if they can give us a glimpse of our future. We’ll also begin to examine why collective bargaining has been successful in promoting rapid fundamental growth throughout the industry.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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