Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra Musicians Strike

According to a statement released by the Madison Area Federation of Musicians, Local #166 AFM, the musicians of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (WCO) officially went on strike at 7:00PM CT, 10/1/2008 as a result of failing to resolve issues in negotiations relating to job security, attendance, and electronic media. The strike comes two days in advance of the organization’s first 2008/09 season concert…

A spokesperson for the musicians said the players approved for the strike to commence a full two days in advance of the 10/3/2008 concert in order to marginalize any inconvenience to ticket holders and give them time to adjust their plans. Wednesday’s picketing action took place in front of the Overture Center, one block directly west of the Wisconsin State Capitol and if no resolution is reached working through the Federal Mediator, Mike Salmon, by Thursday or Friday, picketing will also take place in the same location on Thursday at 7:00PM CT and the Friday at 8:00PM CT. The latter date is also the time of the WCO’s first Masterworks series concert.

According to a statement from the musicians,

…a major sticking point has been the board’s demand to greatly expand its capacity to terminate any musician for any reason, rejecting the necessity to prove “just cause” when firing a player. Similarly, the board has refused to reinstate any of the approximately 15 players the previous contract removed from union protection. The result is that many of these musicians, some of whom have played with the group for 25 years, earn half as much as union musicians for the same service.

“We don’t take a strike lightly. We lose salary if we’re on strike, and our audiences lose highly anticipated performances. But if we accept the changes the board proposes, the very integrity of the institution is eroded.”  - Todd Jelen, negotiating committee chairperson
“We don’t take a strike lightly. We lose salary if we’re on strike, and our audiences lose highly anticipated performances. But if we accept the changes the board proposes, the very integrity of the institution is eroded.” - Todd Jelen, negotiating committee chairperson

Additionally, Todd Jelen, WCO Players’ Committee Member, said another major unresolved point deals with minimum service requirements that infringe on the musicians’ ability to earn a living wage.

“…many of the remaining contract issues deal with the special sacrifices made by the top-flight musicians the WCO has been able to draw, musicians who are part-time and often commute considerable distances for the WCO’s limited schedule,” said Jelen. “For instance, for the 25 percent of the group’s musicians who travel over 100 miles each way for a concert, the WCO board would offer a maximum of $46 for round trip travel expenses. And once they arrive, all the WCO’s out-of-town musicians subsidize the orchestra’s operations in other ways, because they all have to pay for their own lodging and meals. The WCO board continues to insist that WCO musicians must commit to perform 90 percent of services offered, rather than 50 percent that is common with similarly structured orchestras. This presents serious ongoing conflicts with the musicians’ other employment endeavors, which the WCO board has heightened by proposing to eliminate the music director’s ability to relax that requirement in cases where he thinks it may be justified.”

This presents one of the first tangible instances where the rising cost of gasoline is having a significant impact on an orchestra’s ability to conduct business. Using the Gig After Gas Online Calculator, a WCO musician would lose $154.00 on gas alone for traveling back and forth to Madison for a four service concert series.

When asked for a statement regarding the musician’s decision to strike or to expand on the association’s bargaining position, a spokesperson for the WCO indicated they will post something at the organization’s website at a later time. Consequently, although the WCO did distributed a press release refuting the musician’s claims at approximately 8:30PM CT, nothing has appeared on their website at the time this article was published.

Additional Resources

Postscript: For another perspective, read Jason Heath’s Arts Addict post from 10/2/08.

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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