Does Anyone Remember There’s A Strike In Montreal?

On Monday, May 9th the musicians of the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM) decided to walk out on strike after more than 18 months of negotiations which proved to be unfruitful. Unfortunately, I haven’t kept up on the issues at the OSM as much as I should but whether or not you think a government funded orchestra system would have a positive influence labor relations compared to the U.S. nonprofit model, the issues both sides are arguing about are exactly the same as the problems which permeated negotiations here over the past season…

At the heart of the debate in Montreal is pay and working conditions. The musicians refuse to accept a pay freeze for an additional two years over the five they’ve already endured. They state that since 1990 they have fallen from 15th to 34th in pay rank among North American orchestras, a fact they say is eroding the quality of musicians they attract at auditions and retain among their membership.

In the realm of working conditions, management claims they need the musicians to be more flexible so they can remain competitive in the international orchestra market. In particular, they say that they can’t afford to record or tour more often because the current cost of such endeavors, dictated by their master agreement with the musicians, is prohibitive. The musicians claim that by agreeing to the proposed terms, they would have to be willing to work for less recording pay than peer orchestras and travel between tour destinations without pay.

Furthermore, the management wishes to extend the number of consecutive days the musicians can perform than the current contract permits. The musicians claim this would violate the Canadian Labour Standards Law and put many of the string players at serious risk of repetitive stress injuries.

One nice, albeit unusual, component of this work stoppage is the relatively mild level of public discourse between the musicians and the players (as compared to similar events in the U.S.). That doesn’t mean both sides haven’t fired their PR guns at each other, but both websites aren’t littered with propaganda laden language. However, the musician’s website gets a slight “high road” nod over the management operated orchestra site, which features some inflammatory language via a press releases right on the front page.

In actuality, the musician’s website isn’t devoted solely to their positions; instead they cleverly address many of the issues via an introduction and FAQ page which describe the motivation behind their positions by way of answering questions related to negotiation topics. They put such a pleasant face on things that the website’s front page features smiling, happy players dressed in concert black carrying red picket signs. If you didn’t know better, you’d think they were starting a grass roots audience development campaign.

Unfortunately, this isn’t to say the strike is a trivial event. In fact, the OSM has cancelled all of the regular season concerts since 5/9/05 and all of their summer season concerts nd festival appearances. To make matters worse, the upcoming 05-06 season is supposed to be the inaugural season for their new music director, Kent Nagano (sound familiar Baltimore?). For his part, Maestro Nagano has remained tight lipped on issues regarding the strike, whether or not he’s working behind the scenes to enact positive developments is unknown.

As of now, talks have resumed between both negotiation parties but a resolution has yet to be reached.

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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1 thought on “Does Anyone Remember There’s A Strike In Montreal?”

  1. Dear Drew;

    What follows are some recent letters to the editor that appeared in the Montreal Gazette. I am a subscriber to the orchestra and live about 1 and 1/2 hours away, so it is quite a sacrifice for me and my children to attend these concerts. What makes the biggest impression on me is the harshness of the tenor of the Orchestra’s management statements. This is truly a great orchestra but the management is simply making things worse by the style and type of statments. I guess what I’m saying is that a quieter and less critical approach by the management would be helpful, (or at least would not hurt).

    Classical music
    is alive and well
    in Montreal
    Re: Gazette, July 29, “Curtain drops lower on MSO’s fall season.”
    As a Montreal Symphony Orchestra musician, I would like to know what Lucien Bouchard meant when he said MSO musicians were insensitive to the realities of economics in Montreal and the world of classical music.
    Classical music is alive and well here, thank you. We have a large and enthusiastic audience base. Every week, we play to a very large number of people of all ages. We are members of one of the best-known orchestras in the world and it is an important thread in the social fabric that makes up the city of Montreal.
    As to the economics of the city, I see lots of development and large amounts of money being spent.
    How about the $1 billion that might be spent on the new casino, with an attached concert hall? The new Grand bibliothèque is another example, as well as all the development in Montreal’s business district. There is plenty of money out there, but it is not being managed properly by the city, the province and the feds.
    David Marlowe
    Baie D’Urfé Musicians could use a break
    Re: Gazette, July 29, “Curtain drops lower on MSO’s fall season.”
    Although I cannot address all the issues of contention in the conflict between the musicians and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra management, I do know that a musician who is frequently subject to continuous playing without any break is risking physical injury, which, over time, can prematurely end a career.
    I wonder if the public realizes that most serious musicians begin to study during childhood. This is a much longer preparation for a career compared, for example, with most health professionals.
    Perhaps, rather than make demands of the players, the orchestra could launch a wellorganized campaign to raise funds, as other cities across North America have successfully done. That might be a better plan for ensuring the orchestra’s long-term survival.
    Sidonie Kerr
    MSO finale approaching?
    Re: Gazette poll, July 31, “Do you support the musicians in their labour dispute with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra? Yes: 22%; No: 78%.”
    I was very dismayed to see the lack of support for the musicians of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, as illustrated by an online poll published in The Gazette.
    Those who have taken the time to familiarize themselves with the working conditions and rates of pay of the MSO and other orchestras will see that the inability of the two sides to sign a new agreement is the fault of an administration that refuses to recognize the considerable and rigorous demands already placed on its great musicians.
    Montrealers, having already lost one major-league franchise, had better wake up and participate in this dispute or run the very real risk of losing one of the world’s great orchestras. Could this be a real indication of Lucien Bouchard’s level of concern for Quebec culture and its promotion throughout the world? Quel désastre.
    Robert Kazenel

    Thanks for a great series.

    Joe Nichols

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