More On The Political Value Of Health Insurance

Yesterday’s article examined the decision by the St. Louis Symphony management to cancel the musician’s health insurance because of the current contract negotiation impasse.  Historically, the situation during the 1996 strike by the San Francisco Symphony musicians demonstrated that this approach to force an end to a work stoppage has never been very successful.

By all accounts, the decision to cancel the musician’s health insurance was made without much examination of past practices at the SLSO or other orchestras.  Fortunately, Peter Dobrin, the classical music critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer who did a first rate job at covering the recent negotiations at Philadelphia, provided another example of how managers and musicians deal with health insurance during a negotiation impasse.

I’m grateful that Peter took the time to send a copy of his article from 1996, having a “living compendium” of industry events stored in the minds of those who observe the industry is an invaluable resource (even more valuable then Google).  The following excerpt is from an article he wrote on October 19th, 1996 during the Philadelphia Orchestra strike.

“[Philadelphia Orchestra] musicians were stunned when management stopped paying for health-care coverage. They said that health benefits for musicians of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra were not canceled when those players struck for 26 weeks in the 1988-89 season – the longest orchestra strike in U.S. history.

Health benefits for players have not been canceled by management of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, where players struck Sept. 20, a spokeswoman for that group said.”

During the 1996 Philadelphia Orchestra strike the musicians retaliated to having their health insurance canceled,

“Musicians struck Sept. 16, [1996] with a vote of 100-0 that they said also doubled as a vote of no-confidence in management. Verbal attacks against management have intensified as the strike has worn on.

The tone of the dispute turned uglier this week. At a rally with local and national labor leaders in front of the Academy of Music musicians called for boycotts of businesses owned and operated by orchestra board members. They planned for their first target to be Richard L. Smoot, a member of the orchestra’s finance committee, and PNC Bank, where Smoot is president.”

As a result, Philadelphia Orchestra executive board member, Benjamin Alexander stepped in to take action,

“Alexander worked to negotiate a deal on the spot between players and management: The orchestra’s board would consider resuming the cost of the musicians’ coverage in exchange for the musicians not picketing in front of PNC Bank.”

How bad do things need to get in St. Louis before they begin to get better? 

Most importantly, even if one side does cave under such draconian pressures there will be so much ensuing discontent that retribution will be on the minds of many for years to come; this works out to be nothing more than a lose-lose scenario.  How does that help future fund raising efforts?

There’s ample history to examine which will help guide a decisions, hopefully, the leaders in St. Louis are paying attention.

What do you think; is there an easy way out of this mess in St. Louis?  It’s important to allow everyone to ring in with an opinion on this issue, and if you live in an area which is served by performances of the SLSO, you have an even greater role in letting your voice be heard.  Send in your thoughts, feelings, and observations.

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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