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.
Before 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.