Madison’s Red Herring Special

When considering historical reasons behind work stoppages in the orchestra business, what comes to mind are intense disagreements on financial compensation and/or work rules, impending financial impasse, entrenched positions among stakeholders, attempts to implement sizeable budget cuts, etc. After the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (WCO) announced they were cancelling their 2/27/2009 Masterworks concert due to what the organization defined as the musicians rejecting their latest contract offer, it seemed the two sides must have these sorts of disagreements. However, the reality may be very different…

Since the latest WCO press release did not contain any specific details about which negotiation issue(s) led to their decision, I contacted the organization’s executive director, Doug Gerhart, with a series of questions to find out more about the situation. Unfortunately, Mr. Gerhart has not returned repeated requests for additional information; however, the musicians’ negotiating committee chairperson and WCO principal bassoonist, Todd Jelen, was willing to provide details.

opponentAccording to Jelen, the WCO’s decision to cancel concerts is the result of the musicians’ position that the organization provides supplemental instrument insurance whenever the organization goes on tour. For those unfamiliar with this issue, orchestra musicians are responsible for purchasing insurance for the instruments they use in the orchestra or the orchestra association can provide this insurance for them as a benefit; in the case of the WCO, it is the former.

Jelen pointed out that the musicians’ are asking for this provision due to a history of accident related instrument problems during services and the musicians’ decision to accept the WCO’s compromise on retroactive pay increases. Jelen pointed out that the musicians agreed to accept the WCO’s offer of limiting retroactive pay increases to January 1, 2009, which was a concession from their original bargaining position that pay increases be retroactive through September, 1, 2008.

“We determined that accepting the concession on retroactive pay was acceptable provided management agreed to our request for supplemental instrument insurance whenever the organization was on tour,” said Jelen.

In order to make certain the WCO wouldn’t feel like the players were attempting to take advantage of the organization, Jelen said the supplemental insurance would only need to cover any additional expenses not covered by the musicians’ individual policy and only apply while on tour. Furthermore, any musician that opted to not purchase instrument insurance would not be eligible for any supplemental benefits provided by the WCO if their instrument was damaged while on tours.

“The WCO has never been on tour and management tells us that there are no tours being planned,” said Jelen.”So we’re confused as to why this would be an issue they would use to justify cancelling the [2/27/2009] concert a month in advance, especially after we verbally conceded to the retroactive pay issue.”

Another puzzling component in this process is the WCO’s claim that the musicians have rejected their latest contract proposal. According to Jelen, management has never indicated that any of their proposals were their last, best, and final offer and as a result, the musicians have yet to conduct an official ratification meeting. Instead, they have conducted orchestra meetings to clarify the group’s position on specific issues in order to reach an agreement they can present for ratification.

Jelen went on to point out that the cost of the tour insurance they are requesting is minimal and since the WCO has never claimed that the organization is in any sort of financial distress, this shouldn’t be a problem. In fact, the 1/23/2009 edition of the Isthmus Daily Page, reported that the WCO’s financial condition was cause for good news and “Donations to the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra are on par with past years.” At the time this article was published, multiple requests to the WCO for specific financial information to verify this claim have gone unanswered.

The Daily Page isn’t the only Madison area publication examining the WCO’s current situation. A 2/2/2009 editorial in The Capital Times criticized the WCO’s executive decision to cancel the 2/27/2009 concert with what they defined as “more than enough time to settle this dispute,” a similar sentiment expressed by Jelen.

On 2/2/2009, musicians filed a federal unfair labor practice charge against the orchestra’s management for cancelling the 2/27/2009 due to the musicians’ exercising union activity. This charge is in addition to the charge they filed on 1/29/2009. According to Jelen, the two sides are scheduled to meet on 2/26/2009 and will be attended by the new mediator that was assigned by the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS) after the original mediator moved out of the area.

Ultimately, the WCO’s decision to cancel concerts and withdraw their last negotiation offer based on the issue of supplemental instrument insurance while the organization is on tour is looking more like a Red Herring than any sort of traditional issue that promulgates a work stoppage.


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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1 thought on “Madison’s Red Herring Special”

  1. The WCO musicians’ decision to continue asking for supplemental insurance is a wise one, as instruments are often mangled during the traveling process on tours (ever seen a crushed tuba?) and, after all, the musicians’ instruments are being moved at the employer’s behest as part of their outreach activities.

    This is my guess–the supplemental insurance issue may be part of a bid on the WCO’s part to do away with the past practice clause (or portions of it) in their proposal.

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