Cutting Off Their Nose In Spite Of Their Face

Sunday’s issue of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch contained an article by music critic Sarah Bryan Miller.  Sara’s article does a good job at showing the latest development in the contract negations between SLSO management and musicians that is turning into a quagmire before our very eyes.

This latest development has to do with health insurance. According to the Post-Dispatch article, the SLSO management has canceled the musicians’ health insurance benefits on January 3rd, 2005 even though the premiums had been paid for in advance.

SLSO president, Randy Adams, was quoted in the Post-Dispatch article as saying,

” if an employee leaves the organization, we get a rebate. When the musicians went out on their (work stoppage), they knew in advance there would be no health coverage.”

Apparently, it’s the last part of that statement which is being questioned by the musicians.  The Post-Dispatch quotes the players negotiating committee chairman, Jan Gippo, as saying,

“[management] was sending mixed signals. Most symphony orchestra managements, when they come to an impasse like this, have already paid the first month or two of health insurance. It’s just been an unwritten rule and an understanding that the musicians are covered. So we just assumed that it was paid for.”

Those who fail to learn from history

Unfortunately, I’m not surprised that the SLSO management has made such a rash, erroneous decision.  It appears that the majority of the problems resulting from the negotiation impasse have been due to a lack of historical perspective toward musician/management labor relations.

The first problem was management’s decision to cancel the French  horn and double bass auditions at the beginning of the month because they assumed the musicians were going to vote down their “last, best, and final” contract offer. Never mind the musicians participating in the audition committee contacted Mr. Adams to inform him that their colleagues were ok with them performing their duties even if they did vote down the contract.  Instead, Mr. Adams decided to go ahead and cancel the auditions and the musicians declared they were being “locked out”.

A few days later Mr. Adams invited the musicians to return to work, but only under the conditions of their previous contract (less the salary subsidy supplied by the now depleted bridge fund), without retracting their “last, best, and final” offer, or even offering terms for continuing negotiations.

All of these events are well outside of typical unwritten “standard operating procedures” for dealing with a negotiation impasse.  And now, Mr. Adams is ignoring past negotiation practices at the SLSO which included providing health insurance coverage during work stoppages.

The Post-Dispatch article quotes Mr. Adams as saying,

“I have no knowledge of [those past practices], but I will say that health insurance costs today are quite different than they were 25 years ago.”

Well, no kidding of course they aren’t but what does Mr. Adams hope to accomplish by this move:

  • Is the SLSO in such financial distress that making the payments would force the organization into bankruptcy?
  • Is this just a negotiation tacit?
  • Is he trying to teach the musicians some sort of lesson?

Perhaps it’s Mr. Adams who is in need of a history lesson when it comes to negotiation impasse, so in the interest of finding an amicable resolution to this hurtful development I offer the following history lesson.

San Francisco 1996
(Certain details of the following events are originally from SOI’s Harmony #13, pages 13-14)
During the beginning of the San Francisco symphony 1996-1997 season, the musicians voted to go on strike as a result of negotiation impasse.  The musicians stayed on strike for over 10 weeks and during that time the symphony management terminated their health insurance, partially as a tool to persuade them to come back to work and also as a cost savings measure.

As a result, this act only served to antagonize an already touchy group of musicians.  SFS musician, Rob Weir, responded by holding his ill two-year-old son in front of television cameras in an attempt to shame management.

The situation in San Francisco only degraded from there.  Although the SFS management was able to achieve the fiscal responsibility they desired, they also discovered that the “price” paid for that result was far too expensive.

The tactics they used during the strike drew ridicule from the press, patrons canceled subscriptions and cut donations, and musician/management relations were at an organizational all time low.

The lessons learned from this historical example are that fiscal responsibility at “all costs” are not always worth the price and posturing + pride = disaster.

A happy ending is still possible (but just barely)
Throughout all of these ill informed choices and rapidly declining relations there’s still an easy solution: do the right thing.

In this case, the “right thing” for management to do is:

  • reinstate the musician’s health insurance coverage immediately.
  • withdraw their “last, best, and final” offer.
  • propose new terms to continue negations.
  • realize that if the SLSO falls behind their peer orchestras in salary the results will have a negative impact on their artistic output.

The musicians need to:

  • give the management the flexibility necessary during the proposed length of the contract to find the money they want (such as “backloading” salary increases).
  • publicly praise the management for making the right choices and don’t hold the recent round of rash decisions against them just allow the managers to chalk it up to inexperience.
  • work with the management to help locate undiscovered sources of financial contributions in and out of the greater St. Louis metropolitan area.

As the costs for winning philosophical points in this negotiation continue to spiral out of control, the cost for finding a peaceful, amicable solution has never been more affordable.  If I were a donor in the St. Luis community I would be glad to hand over an additional donation if the good SLSO executive managers would just be willing to admit they made a few hasty decisions and expressed a willingness to continue the negotiation dialog.

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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