Something Doesn’t Smell Right In Madison

After making steady progress on months of contentious negotiations, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (WCO) issued a press release on January 30, 2009 announcing they were cancelling an upcoming February concert nearly a month away. According to the PR, the reason for the cancellation is because the Musicians of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra negotiation committee rejected provisions in the WCO’s latest negotiation offer. However, additional details in the WCO’s PR come across as smelling a bit off…

The strongest odor is the WCO's repeated use of language insinuating that the musicians should have accepted their latest offer on certain provisions because of current economic conditions.
The strongest odor is the WCO's repeated use of the "times are tough" card without quantifying their economic conditions.

The strongest odor is the WCO’s repeated use of language insinuating that the musicians should have accepted their latest offer on certain provisions because of current economic conditions.

“We believe our proposal was more than fair and remarkably generous, especially in this current economic climate.” said Doug Gerhart, WCO executive director, who went on to say “We have repeatedly tried to work with the musicians’ negotiating team and have encouraged them to consider the plight of our donors and audience members who are all cutting back where possible in this economy.”

Unfortunately, what was missing from the 698 word PR was any mention as to whether or not the “plight” of donors and audience members was having any sort of impact on the WCO’s revenue. Typically, an orchestra association will go out its way to point out financial strife supported by hard figures (real or spin). But in this case there isn’t even a hint at the WCO’s bottom line. Gerhart dances around the issue by saying “…these challenging economic times have already hit other arts organizations in Madison as we have seen on the news.” But there is never any mention of the WCO’s past, current, or projected financial condition.

We believe our proposal was more than fair and remarkably generous, especially in this current economic climate. - Doug Gerhart
"We believe our proposal was more than fair and remarkably generous, especially in this current economic climate." - Doug Gerhart

As a result, Gerhart’s rhetoric comes across more as an attempt to use the downturn in the economy as a distraction and a tool to force the musicians into accepting their latest bargaining provisions. And this isn’t the first time the organization has played the “times are tough” card. If they aren’t careful, the WCO leadership may find their strategy turns undecided public opinion against them if patrons connected to layoffs and job cuts learn that the group is in no real economic danger and are merely using the “times are tough” card as a tactic.

As for the musicians, they issued their own press release stating that their recent action came after polling the musicians on terms of outstanding issues in order to assure that the negotiating committee was adequately representing their colleagues. Their PR details this process and projects an increased level of public transparency, something which is usually undisclosed during negotiations.

“The Jan. 21 poll was a simple declaration of our rank and file’s sentiment on these final contract terms and their desire for compromise,” said Todd Jelen, the musicians’ negotiating committee chairperson and WCO principal bassoonist.

The musicians’ PR went on to detail the outstanding issues that had been resolved over the past three months of negotiations in addition to the outstanding provisions which brought about the current impasse. According to the PR, those issues included provisions related to instrument insurance during tours and when the agreed upon salary increases would commence. Given the fact that the organization’s previous contract expired several months ago, it isn’t unusual for groups to negotiate on whether or not mutually agreed compensation increases will be retroactive and if so, to what degree.

For the WCO to think that it can arbitrarily abolish workers elemental right to voice what they believe, and to use the musicians’ right to union democracy as an excuse to punish them – that’s fundamentally unfair. - Todd Jelen
"For the WCO to think that it can arbitrarily abolish workers elemental right to voice what they believe, and to use the musicians’ right to union democracy as an excuse to punish them – that’s fundamentally unfair." - Todd Jelen

As a result of the WCO’s decision to withdraw what the musicians’ PR defined as “… an unspecified number of previously resolved contract terms, and setting a January 30th deadline for an ‘unqualified assurance’ that the musicians would play the February 27th Masterworks concert” the musicians filed a federal unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board in Milwaukee on 1/29/2009.

“According to the American Federation of Musicians, this constitutes an unfair labor practice. The management’s action requiring the musicians to guarantee services before a binding contract has been signed also strips the union’s legal right to strike as a counterbalance to the employer’s power.” – Musicians of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra Press Release, 1/29/2009.

Ultimately, the WCO’s position would have come across much stronger if they abandoned the “times are tough” language and focused instead on outstanding negotiation issues supported by transparent details. In the meantime, in addition to cancelling the February concert, the WCO stated they have withdrawn their “most recent offer from further consideration” but want to continue bargaining with the musicians. Unfortunately, this last bit emits a similar odor as before since canceling the concert in combination with tossing aside all previous offers without first stating that it was their last, best, final offer and allowing the musicians an opportunity to hold a ratification meeting may prove to be a shortsighted decision. In all likelihood, it is something the National Labor Relations Board may take into consideration.


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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