Reader Response: BSO Keeps Union Away

After reading the article from Monday, March 21st, Cleveland Orchestra musician, Henry Peyrebrune, took the time to share an interesting observation about what he read from the article regarding how (in 1918) the BSO management allegedly offered their musicians a $250 bonus to prevent unionizing,

“Another aspect of this story is that the BSO founder, Henry Lee Higginson, decided that in order to ensure the BSO hired and kept the best players available, it was essential that they be the highest paid orchestra.  As a result, he kept them at that status for many years.”

In order to learn more about that, I contacted Boston Symphony Orchestra archivist, Bridget Carr, who confirmed Henry’s recollection,

“Mr. Higginson wanted to make sure he hired and keep the best players he could, so he tried to make sure that they had a long enough season to provide them with a fulltime job so they wouldn’t go back to Europe after the season, therefore, leaving the BSO needing to hire a new orchestra each year. 

The BSO is unique in that it was founded and subsidized by Mr. Higginson for many years until his death in 1919.  After his passing, the board worked very hard to perpetuate his ideals by continuing to offer regular employment and a higher pay structure.”

However, just because the musicians weren’t members of the union didn’t mean they weren’t collectively organized (they didn’t officially unionize until 1942).  They still elected a players committee to represent their collective interests and were involved in the organization to a greater degree than their peers at the early part of the 20th century.

This collective nature led to many proactive measures by the musicians.  For example, in order to help stabilize the organization financially after Mr. Higginson’s death, the BSO musicians went on strike in 1920 with the goal of having the organization establish their first endowment campaign.

I’m glad to see the BSO retains an archivist; institutional history is too valuable just to be forgotten.

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.