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.