Answering Some Questions About The Seattle Articles

The articles about the International Guild of Symphony, Opera, & Ballet Musicians (IGSOBM), the Seattle based musicians’ union, generated some good questions from readers this week.

One question came from an orchestra patron in Oregon:

“Why did the [Seattle Symphony] musicians leave the AFM in the first place?”

The answer to this question is rather involved. The simple answer is the Seattle Symphony players’ association was not seeing eye-to-eye with their Local AFM office over issues related to setting work dues, control over how those dues were spent, and recording issues at the time of the split. For a more detailed answer from IGSOBM’s perspective, they maintain a page at their website with considerably more information:

If I come across a similar online document detailing the events from the AFM’s perspective, I’ll post a link to it at that time (feel free to send one in if you know of one out there).

A reader from Missouri sent an interesting question after they did some quick math:

“How can IGSOBM function as an organization if they only collect $50.00 from each member? Even if all four of their chapters had 100 players and they were all members that still only amounts to $20,000 per year in membership dues.”

That is some accurate math. A quick visit to reveals that IGSOBM is not required to file an annual return with the IRS because its income is less than $25,000. Some insight into IGSOBM’s finances came from interviews I conducted with IGSOBM officers Randy Baunton and Matthew Kocmieroski.

Apparently, IGSOBM officers serve on a volunteer basis and the organization does not maintain a paid staff. Officers are reimbursed for expenses related to service but there are no dedicated expense accounts. Additionally, IGSOBM does not maintain an ancillary Political Action Committee to lobby Federal officials or make donations to political campaigns.

An orchestra staffer from Texas wrote in wondering about negotiations:

“One of your articles mentioned that the Seattle union uses Interest Based Bargaining. Does that mean they have better negotiations?”

I would have to say “no”. Interest Based Bargaining, or IBB, is only a method of bargaining; as such, it’s more like a tool than anything else. The outcomes from a collective bargaining agreement resulting from IBB depend entirely on the people involved.

IBB usually requires that a mutually agreed upon facilitator be present during negotiating sessions and according to Patricia Watrous, Tucson Symphony Orchestra second flute and past negotiation committee member, their last negotiation didn’t use a facilitator but both sides did agree not to include attorneys at the negotiating sessions. As such, that example was more of a hybrid between strict IBB and traditional methods of bargaining.

According to a source inside the SSO executive management that wishes to remain anonymous and has participated in negotiations said that their negotiating session with the SSOPO, said those negotiations were typically amicable and the players were very confident and well prepared. Furthermore, according to Randy Baunton, the actual CBA negotiations were nearly identical between when they were an AFM represented orchestra and later as an IGSOBM chapter since nearly the entire negotiating committee was comprised of the same people from one instance to the next.

At the same time, that doesn’t mean everyone in Seattle sits around a campfire holding hands and singing Kum-Ba-Ya. Since becoming an IGSOBM chapter, Seattle has had issues that were difficult enough to resolve that both sides had to continue negotiations past the contract’s expiration into what is commonly referred to as “play and talk”.

In another instance in 1995, SSO violist and SSOPO committee chair, Tim Hale, gave a speech at the Seattle Symphony Association Annual Meeting where he engaged sticky issues such as the five month long play-and-talk session. He even told those present that “the entire Seattle Symphony organization – board, administration, and musicians – is being exploited in its recording contracts.” Since that time, the organization continues to grapple over recording issues.

Recently, there’s the politically charged issue surround the extension of the SSO music director’s contract. That event sparked an artistic satisfaction survey conducted by the SSOPO artistic committee and local Seattle media has picked up on a great deal of internal consternation between board members, managers, and musicians over the issue.

In the end, I would say the situation in Seattle is no different than any other orchestra with regard to negotiations and working conditions: the environment is only as good as the people involved.

Finally, a number of readers sent in a simple, yet profound, question. To paraphrase:

“So which union is better, The Guild or the AFM?”

It really isn’t an issue of one being better than another. Instead, I think it’s better to realize that even though the Seattle musicians were unhappy with their union, they didn’t intend to disperse into a traditional non-union employer/employee relationship. Instead, they immediately formed another musicians’ union.

In Tucson, when they were considered leaving the AFM they went out looking to join a different union. Consequently, this demonstrates that the basic concept of organized, collective representation works well for orchestra musicians. Although the vast majority of those players are represented by the American Federation of Musicians, those that aren’t are still represented by a recognized labor union.

At the risk of being repetitious, it all boils down to the people involved. Some Local union offices and orchestra committees have fabulous leaders and others are cursed with the absolute wrong people for the job. At the same time, that’s no different than any given orchestra administration or board. You have the good, the bad, and the ugly.

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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