Contract? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Contract

What’s the best way to deal with a grievance? At the San Francisco Opera it seems they prefer to pretend they don’t exist.  However, the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA) has decided that after nearly five years and 31 grievances (and more on the way), it’s time to force the issue by going to federal court.

I spoke with Nora Heiber, the AGMA Northern California Area Representative, about the ongoing problem.

Of the four AGMA companies in the Bay Area, the San Francisco Opera is the only one for which arbitration has become necessary in order to resolve every grievance,” Nora said. “Our biggest frustration is the Opera’s failure to follow contractually established procedures.”

Last Monday, I published an article which examined the importance of establishing and following inclusive procedures by arts organizations.  But that article assumed that a process would be followed by both parties in good faith.  According to Nora, AGMA can’t even get to that point with representatives from the San Francisco Opera,

“We follow the contractually mandated process regarding all of our grievances; we file an initial letter outlining the grievance, then follow up with a letter which proposes remedies, and then demand that the issue move to arbitration.  But at each step in that process, the San Francisco Opera representatives rarely even want to discuss the matter or present remedies, they just dismiss it out of hand.

We’ve had five or six grievances from this year which have followed the revised grievance procedures outlined in the new contact but that’s only helped to a small degree. The San Francisco Opera representatives still don’t follow up on any of our suggestions.”

My initial thoughts were that the problem with adhering to the process may be due to one or two individuals within the SF Opera organization who simply refuse to cooperate so I asked Nora if that was the case.  She said,

“No, all of this keeps happening even with changes in the administration and the board.  In the four grievances we have been able to get to arbitration we’ve won every one of them, so it isn’t as though these are frivolous charges, they’re absolute violations of the collective bargaining agreement.”

Hopefully, the situation between AGMA and the San Francisco Opera will improve but even if the union succeeds in winning all 31+ grievances through court ordered arbitration, the future won’t be any better until the San Francisco Opera administrators come to their senses and begin to treat their collectively bargained contract requirements and procedures with respect and sincerity.

I contacted the San Francisco Opera on the same day that I contacted Ms. Heiber from the AGMA to hear their side of the story but they never returned my phone calls or email messages.  This doesn’t help to deflate the claim that they are treating these issues to their contract with a cavalier, “above the law” attitude.

Perhaps they subscribe the old saying “If I don’t see it, it doesn’t exist”, but after the federal court issues a ruling on the charges filled by the AGMA, perhaps the folks at the opera may learn a hard lesson from the old Greek proverb “ignorance of the law is no excuse”.

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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