Where Things Stand In Atlanta

When looking back on the 2006-2007 season, the Atlanta Ballet may discover that it garnered more national media attention than usual. Unfortunately, that attention may not be due to reasons they prefer…

A summer decision by the Ballet’s board of directors to cancel the use of live music during productions has attracted a firestorm of media attention as well as an unfair labor practice complaint filed by the American Federation of Musicians Local 148-462, which represents the Atlanta Ballet players’ association. The musicians’ charge claims that the Ballet has failed to negotiate in good faith and that complaint is currently pending while the NLRB office located in Washington D.C. deliberates.

So where does that put both sides in this dispute? I spoke with David Tatu, Atlanta Ballet’s Director of Production, and according to David, the musicians’ complaint is a moot point.

“The [Atlanta Ballet] musicians have been fired and we sent them their WARN Notice more than 75 days ago,” said David. “There is no strike or lockout; the musicians are simply no longer employees.”

The Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act is a law which requires employers to provide employees with notification 60 calendar days in advance of mass layoffs, terminations, or impending organizational shut down.

Andrew Cox, Treasurer/Secretary for Local 148-462, said they received the WARN notices in August, 2006 and they became effective October 20, 2006. Additionally, the musicians assert that management has failed to negotiate in good faith because the Ballet offered regressive proposals, ultimately resulting in the Ballet’s unilateral termination of the musicians’ employment.

According to Mary Kenny, a cellist in the Ballet orchestra and the players’ association negotiation committee spokesperson, the musicians are currently locked out.

“It’s our understanding that we are in a lockout situation,” said Mary. Our previous contract expired on August 31, 2006 but [the Ballet] announced on July 20, 2006 they were dropping live music. This happened in a negotiation meeting and they released it to the press the same day before the meeting started. Within two hours of that announcement, less time than the committee would have needed to notify all of the members, some players were receiving calls from the press.”

Mary Kenny added that if the NLRB rules in their favor the musicians would like to see negotiations resume in earnest so they can find a way to get live music back into the productions as quickly as possible.

“Our position is that we have always been willing to negotiate and as recent as last week the lawyers from both sides were in discussions,” said Mary. “We would really like to work with the Ballet to see live music in each production as well as finding a way to solve these problems and become more financially secure.”

However, the Ballet’s management claims negotiations have ceased although they did admit that their attorney has been in contact with the musicians’ legal counsel. According to David Tatu, the most recent exchange in those discussions was less than two weeks ago.

These issues and more are currently being evaluated by the NLRB and their ruling will likely determine how this situation unfolds.

An Issue Of Support
Of course, one of the principle concerns among both sides in a situation like this is how it will impact the organization’s ability to raise funds, especially during a period where the board has claimed that their actions were in response to extreme financial distress.

I asked David Tatu whether or not the Atlanta Ballet has seen an increase or decrease in corporate, individual, government, and foundation giving since the organization announced that it was cutting the orchestra. He said those figures were unavailable to him but the organization has received a great deal of support from the corporate, civic, and foundation communities.

However, when asked which organizations have expressed their support and if any of them have made new or increased donations David was unable to produce any names. Instead, the information comes to the organization through board members in lieu of direct communication.

“Our board members are in contact with those groups and I’ve heard them say that there is a great deal of support among those organizations,” said David.

Déjà Vu
If it seems like this scenario played out not long ago, you would be correct. The Pittsburgh Ballet Theater (PBT) went through a protracted labor dispute not unlike the events in Atlanta during the 2005-2006 season. An early attempt to fire the musicians resulted in the organization opening that season to recorded music.

Fortunately, that situation ended on a positive note with the board and musicians coming to an agreement that allowed live music to return to their productions. According to a telephone interview with PBT executive director, Harris N. Ferris, last week, the organization is meeting its challenges and the musicians are actively involved with fundraising efforts.

Given the fact that the situation in Atlanta is not unlike the experience PBT went through last year, I asked Harris if he had been contacted by anyone from the Atlanta Ballet seeking advice or input on their labor issue.

“I believe I spoke to someone that had a volunteer relationship with the Atlanta Ballet; but to date, no one from their management or board has contacted me,” said Harris.

That information was confirmed by David Tatu from Atlanta. According to David, no one from the Atlanta Ballet management or board of directors has contacted the PBT seeking advice or insight.

Where Things Stand
According to David Tatu, the Atlanta Ballet has no plans to include live music during any of their performances for the remainder of the 2006-2007 season or any of the 2007-2008 season. Conversely, the musicians contend there is a solution out there which would allow live music to return as soon as this season.

To further their case, the musicians have started to picket Ballet performances in an attempt to bring their message to the Ballet’s patrons and the Atlanta public at large. Taking a cue from their ballet orchestra colleagues in Pittsburgh, the Atlanta musicians are promoting the message that patrons are spending more for their tickets this season but receiving a much lower quality product with the absence of an orchestra. The photograph to your left shows musicians delivering this message during a series of demonstrations between October 26 – October 29.

The musicians are hoping this message will inspire patrons and other Atlanta Ballet supporters to follow a simple edict: Demand Live Music. The photograph to your far left shows Ballet principal cellist Charae Krueger delivering this message, as does the photograph to your near left of Ballet musician Blair Schermerhon, pictured with her sibling (and her sibling’s favorite stuffed animal in tow).

As of now, the Atlanta Ballet is continuing operations as though the musicians’ rallies and the outstanding unfair labor practice have no bearing on their operations. Whether or not they’ll be able to continue along that path is something only time will tell.

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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3 thoughts on “Where Things Stand In Atlanta”

  1. Public education is key. The Atlanta Ballet musicians are doing that on the picket line. But the rest of us could do more. Orchestras, chamber groups, jazz and other musicians perform thousands of educational services in schools and public places every year. While it is fine to teach students music theory/appreciation and how instruments work, we need to emphasize WHY they need music in their lives to be whole persons, and demonstrate why LIVE MUSIC is a categorically different experience from recorded music. The public is not demanding live music because they don’t understand, down deep, what it is and why they need it.

  2. I attended a December 2006 performance of the Nutcracker in Atlanta. It was horrible with taped music.

    Sadly, this has gotten so little media attention in Atlanta.

    The only media coverage of any sort has been that the ABO musicians are ‘doing fine’ and keeping busy after being fired.

    I am just a fan, but I’ve been writing tons of letters to every single newspaper or website in Georgia.

    If there is a core group of people who are as outraged about this as I am, I haven’t found them.

    In Pittsburgh, they had a complete website to rally the troops when they lost their ballet orchestra. Do we have one here? (I don’t believe we do).

    I’m not being mean, but either there are not enough people who care, or those who care don’t have the leadership skills to lead the fight.

    It’s a tragedy in either case…..

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