Your Guess Is As Good As Mine In Montreal

I’ve been keeping up with the press coming out of Montreal – because getting in touch with reps from the players or the management has not been an easy chore – about the ongoing strike and things continue to degrade…

The latest press release from the management controlled OSM website is dated 7/28/05, which might as well be an eternity in work stoppages. On the musician side of the fence, the latest news on their site is an article from the 8/14/05 edition of The Gazette. Of course, part of the problem is a good old fashioned language barrier. Simply put, things are just different up there.

Nevertheless, not everything is dissimilar, it appears both managers and musicians have their hawks and doves. Recently, Mark Tetreault, Symphonic Services Director, AFM Canada, translated an article appearing in the French language newspaper, La Presse. The article quotes some strong rhetoric from OSM board members about adopting positions which intend to bring the musicians back “on their knees”.

Additionally, the article circulates a rumor that if a settlement is not reached by a certain point, the OSM will be dissolved and a new orchestra formed composed of musicians coming back from the old OSM and new players, thus eliminating any “troublemakers” from the old OSM (any guesses on how the AFM would react to that?). Oddly enough, the paper compares this to President Reagan’s firing of 13,000 air-traffic controllers in 1981, which is not an entirely unreasonable comparison given the high level of Canadian government subsidies directed toward orchestras.

Representatives from the OSM did not return requests to comment on this rumor spread by La Presse.

Apparently, one critical element missing from this fight is a mediator with the ability to really bring peace. In St. Louis, the only U.S. work stoppage from this year, it took legal maneuvering juxtaposed to internal conflict for one side to prevail over the other. However, in other tense conflicts, a mediator with some real power was brought in to settle the dispute.

In particular, I’m thinking about Philadelphia. At that time, the Philly mayor stepped in during the 11th hour and used his political carrots (with his political club hidden not so discretely behind his back) to get both sides to an agreement.

But in Montreal, where’s their carrot wielding club concealing mediator? It seems that both sides are so entrenched in this war that they will refuse to make concessions, justified or not, just to save face. The condition is quickly degrading into all or nothing situation which is a tough game to win.

Given the fact that the Canadian orchestral system is so heavily subsidized by their local and national governments, the top levels of political leaders should be sending in the Canadian version of John Wayne instead of someone who simply goes on vacation when the going gets tough (which is exactly what the current mediator did over the past week).

Simply put, the musicians in the OSM just aren’t paid very well, certainly not enough to be considered a world class orchestra. For decades there’s been the giant sucking sound along the Canada’s border with the U.S. as many of their highly talented musicians drain out of the country for better paying American jobs (if you’ll permit me to use a Ross Perot cliché).

But that sucking slowed to a mere sip in recent years as Canadian orchestras began to match compensation and working conditions with mid budget U.S. ensembles. The labor strife in Montreal has the very real potential to ignite that vortex of talent out of the country once again, thus leaving Canada with few options for establishing an orchestra culture seen by the world as a force to be reckoned with.

One thing is for certain, with the OSM musicians officially on strike the beginning of their 2005-2006 season won’t go very far. However, the OSM is still selling tickets for the opening concerts.

As such, if you patronize the OSM keep in mind that when orchestras here in the U.S. have gone bankrupt, ticket holders typically receive pennies on the dollar after the assets are liquidated. So be wary of requests from anyone wishing to sell you tickets to future OSM concerts until you start to see a better flow of information coming out from both sides.

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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