More Breaking News From St. Louis

Throughout this week’s drama surrounding the contract issues at the Saint Louis Symphony, there’s been a small PR campaign covering the larger philosophical issues of what’s keeping the musicians and management apart; and that smaller issue is one of culpability surrounding the wave of this week’s cancelled auditions and concerts.

The first dilemma began on Monday as musicians were not allowed to participate in listening to the audition candidates for open positions in the french horn and double bass sections.

Even though the musicians contract officially expired on Monday, January 3rd they sent a written notice to management stating their willingness to work on the 3rd and 4th without a contract in order to prevent canceling the auditions. Management decided that it was unfair to have only some musicians working and as a result they decided to not allow the musicians to participate in listening to the candidates and cancelled all related audition activities.

What’s happened since then
In a telephone conversation with Jeff Trammel, Director of Communications for the SLSO, he said that management sent a written offer to the musicians to attend Wednesday’s scheduled rehearsal under the terms of their last proposal. Jeff went on to say that they did receive a fax back from the musician’s representative shortly thereafter rejecting their offer.

The SLSO management claims that the musicians are now on strike because they refused their offer to come back to rehearsals.

I contacted Leonard Leibowitz, Esq., Union Counsel, about those points and he confirmed that the musicians did reject management’s offer. Len continued by explaining that the musicians are more than willing to work and wish to do so but they believed management’s recent offer was only an attempt to convert their lock out into a strike.

Based on comments made by Jeff Trammel, this appears to be accurate. I asked Jeff if the management has conducted any meetings this week to reconsider their previous offer to the musicians and he said that no, they have not. Jeff added that management has not considered asking for help from a federal arbiter nor do they have any proposed meetings to do so.

Canceled concerts
Due to the impasse on Tuesday, management decided to cancel this weekend’s concerts at approximately 10:00am CST when the musicians did not arrive for their scheduled 10:00 am rehearsal.

I asked Jeff if the SLSO management had considered any other options such as scheduling an alternate rehearsal to replace Wednesday morning’s rehearsal in order to prevent canceling the concert if the players did not attend. He said that the management had not considered any other options beyond canceling the concerts and that they have not considered other plans which include continuing with any other rehearsals this week.

Vague language and too many assumptions
Much of the trouble form this week seems to be the result of some vague communication between both parties and unwarranted assumptions. For example, Jeff Trammel confirmed that the SLSO management decided to cancel Monday and Tuesday auditions because the musician’s representative, Jan Gippo, indicated that evening that the musicians may be unwilling to work without a contract.

As a result, SLSO president, Randy Adams, assumed this meant they would not participate in auditions either, regardless of the notice he received from the committee members indicating the opposite. Jeff confirmed that management never discussed any of their assumptions and instead made contingency plans related to canceling scheduled events.

Jeff also said that management has not received any written or verbal notice from the musicians regarding the outcome of their vote to either accept or reject their final contract offer. But according to Leonard Leibowitz, the musicians haven’t sent any return notice because management made the decision to lock the players out before the vote was conducted.

However, management now claims that the players are not being locked out and are on strike because they did not report for rehearsal Wednesday morning after their offer to allow them back.

As a result, this issue of being locked out vs. being on strike is beginning to consume the process and create a poisoned environment in which to find a solution.

The solution
Finding a solution isn’t as difficult as it may appear; as a matter of fact it’s very simple and could have prevented the cancellation of this weekend’s concerts.

According to Leonard Leibowitz the musicians are waiting for management to communicate that they are willing to negotiate a new offer, in particular, the SLSO management needs to:

  1. contact the players in writing stating that they are officially retracting their latest offer, which management entitled their “last, best, and final” offer and,
  2. propose terms for continuing negotiations which are different from their previous offer.

    It’s just that simple; sort of. According to Jeff Trammel, the SLSO management has, to date, not considered retracting their last offer or conduct meetings to discuss raising the additional $2 million the players are requesting management raise as a “bridge campaign” to maintain their salaries over the term of the upcoming contract.

    It appears that point is the lynchpin for these talks; management has stated that they raised the $16 million in funds over recent months (a tremendous accomplishment by anyone’s standards) to secure the institution but not to use directly toward musician salaries.

    However, when asked if management ever considered asking donors to change their stipulations or find new donors to agree to allow their donations to be used directly toward musician salaries, Jeff Trammel said the SLSO management had not considered that as an option.

    I followed up by asking Jeff if SLSO president, Randy Adams, ever presented potential donors with an option of giving funds directly to subsidize musician salaries and he said that was unknown.

    So it appears that it comes down to considering options the SLSO needs to sincerely acknowledge that they will consider options regarding the musician’s requests and work toward raising the needed funds to subsidize their salaries while also finding long term donations to replace that subsidy.

    The SLSO management has done an exemplary job at raising funds so far and they’ve demonstrated just how good of managers they really are. The amounts in question now are so small by comparison to the funds they’ve raised it seems a small point to squabble over and allow the possibility of turning into something that may devour the institution.

    Throughout it all, everyone is still friends
    Even with the growing contention and finger pointing on both sides, the players and managers still have a great deal of respect and kinship toward each other.

    Jeff Trammel mentioned that while the musicians were out on the picket line yesterday, he and other managers went out to offer them hot chocolate and coffee to warm up. He said,

    “I think both sides are going to get past this, these are our friends and we’ve always had good relations.”

    Leonard Leibowitz echoed those sentiments by saying that the musicians have sent a note to management stating that the musicians are anxious to get back to the negotiating table and get things going again once management has indicated that they are willing to retract their previous offer and begin to consider new options.

    Saint Louis’ potential
    Both sides have proven that Saint Louis is more than capable of sustaining and desiring a world class orchestra. The musicians have done so by building an uncompromising artistic product that is the envy of peer orchestras and is the aspiration of lesser ensembles. The management has successfully undertaken Herculean efforts to raise the necessarily funds during a time when most other ensembles would have simply thrown in the towel and rolled over to die.

    All both sides need to do to prove just how viable classical music is an art form, as entertainment, and as a part of the mainstream cultural consciousness is be willing to simply consider options that haven’t even been examined yet.

    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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