Point-Counterpoint In Madison

The musicians of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (WCO) issued a press release on 3/26/2009 announcing plans to picket WCO offices at 3:00p.m. CT and then move to the state Capitol to protest WCO Board tactics throughout their prolonged contract negotiations. Details of recent events in those negotiations and reasoning behind the latest round of offers have finally been made available…

150x150-ita-guy-121The musicians’ picketing activity is in response to the WCO’s latest negotiation offer which was deemed “a last, best, and final offer” by the WCO board. According to the musicians, the activity is an outlet for them to share information about multiple NLRB complaints lodged against the WCO which they assert constricts Union rights to be equal partners in negotiations.

The latest NLRB complaint filed by musicians against the WCO accuses the organization of regressive bargaining, which is defined as reneging on a proposal submitted in negotiations or making a proposal that moves away from agreement by removing or reducing the value of items previously placed the table. In this case, the WCO musicians take issue with a sharp reduction in service guarantees and similarly sharp reductions in mileage reimbursement rates in the Board’s latest offer. Furthermore, the musicians have expressed frustration over having their requests for financial information in order to verify the organization’s economic condition rebuffed by the WCO.

"By presenting the last, best and final offer, the WCO hopes to gain agreement with the musicians and solidify the future of the organization." - Doug Gerhart
"By presenting the last, best and final offer, the WCO hopes to gain agreement with the musicians and solidify the future of the organization." - Doug Gerhart

An article published in the 3/24/2009 edition of 77square.com reports that WCO executive director, Doug Gerhart, would not “not comment on the financial stability” of the WCO but did say he was “confident about the future.” Cageyness notwithstanding, the organization provided a glimpse of insight into the reasoning behind the reduction of service guarantees from 75 to 58 in their current offer in a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) attachment to a 3/24/2009 WCO press release.

The reduction in guaranteed services was consistent with the loss of eight services in connection with the performance of the Nutcracker with the Madison Ballet, the failure of other performance sponsors to have yet signed service commitments, the current economic climate, and what appears to be a decrease in public demand for performances by artistic organizations.

According to this information, the only confirmed service losses are those associated with the Madison Ballet Nutcracker and the WCO has indicated they will return those services as guarantee whenever the Madison Ballet resumes using live music (related details here). At the same time, the WCO provided no hard evidence to account for the additional nine service reductions; instead, their FAQ document indicates they believe public demand for performing arts concert events is decreasing.

None of the ECO’s public statements include details about the current season’s ticket sales or subscription sales for 2009/10. Additional details behind the implied uncertainty in concert sponsorships is also unknown and repeated requests to the WCO for additional details regarding concert sponsorships and other fundraising activity have gone unanswered.

todd_jelen
"Given the Board's track record of canceling concerts rather than negotiating fairly, I wouldn’t put it past them to cancel Concerts on the Square just for spite. The citizens of Madison deserve better." – Todd Jelen

The remaining issue related to the regressive bargaining complaint, reductions in mileage reimbursement rates, is explained in the WCO’s FAQ document.

When mileage reimbursement rates were originally discussed, gas prices were at $4.00/gallon. Now that gas prices have dropped significantly, the WCO is reducing mileage rates to reflect the decrease in gas prices, but increasing the reimbursement rates over the term of the new contract to be almost on par with the January proposal by the last year of the agreement.

This is a curious basis as it indicates the revision in the WCO’s offer is clearly based on the fluctuation of gas prices over the course of negotiations. As such, instead of proposing a fixed reimbursement schedule over each year of the contract, proposing reimbursement rates attached to prevailing gas prices at the time of each service period would not only provide a flexible and evenhanded solution but a stronger bargaining position.

In the meantime, the WCO musicians have come out with a new wave in their PR campaign to raise awareness of their issues. In addition to the picketing action today, Todd Jelen, musicians’ negotiating committee chairperson and WCO principal bassoonist, appeared on The 8 O’clock Buzz program on Madison’s WORT 89.9FM. Jelen’s segment is available below:

[audio:wort_090326_080001buzzthu.mp3]

In the balance is the WCO’s very popular Summer Concerts on the Square program which the WCO has indicated they may cancel if the musicians do not accept their last, best, and final offer by 4/24/2009. According to Jelen, canceling those concerts two months in advance is uncalled for and “the citizens of Madison deserve better.” This echoes sentiments from others inside Madison as far back as 2/2/2009 when an editorial in The Capital Times criticized the WCO’s executive decision to cancel February concerts with what they defined as “more than enough time to settle this dispute.”

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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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10 thoughts on “Point-Counterpoint In Madison”

  1. It is interesting that, in these difficult times, the WCO musicians have so much work that they can apparently afford to continue this strike indefinitely when so many others have lost their jobs or are at least taking pay cuts. All nonprofit organizations have had a severe decrease in corporate and individual giving, and if nothing else has been learned from the nation and world’s recent economic woes, organizations do have a responsibility to be careful about over-extension. The terms proposed seem reasonable; I don’t know why the WCO musicians feel the need to continue the drama. They are quickly losing the support of the community (and, I daresay, likely their fellow musicians) for their continued lack of participation in trying to solve this strike. What have they done or conceded?

  2. Mary, you are correct that these are difficult times for the arts. The interesting thing is that the WCO claims that the economy has not affected their ability to afford to present concerts. Being careful about over-extension is one thing, but if an orchestra uses the state of the economy as an excuse to punish their musicians for exercising their right to strike, no one wins. The musicians have made many concessions over the course of negotiations, including taking a pay cut. The truth is that both sides were ready to come to an agreement in January and then the WCO reneged on previously agreed upon items which severely impact the musicians’ ability to earn a living. All the musicians want is to be treated fairly. That’s what this strike has always been about. If the WCO board would come to the table and bargain fairly, rationally, and logically, Madison would see an end to this strike.

  3. Listen to what Hannah is saying, Mary. On the surface, the WCO musicians can easily be cast in a negative light. Bad economy, layoffs, uncertainty all around – I’m sure we can all agree that this is the worst possible time for anyone to find themselves in a strike situation.

    Hannah says that all the musicians want is to be treated fairly; I would ever-so-slightly disagree and say that all they want is to be treated with honesty. When service guarantees (work days) are agreed upon at 75, dropped to 35, then raised back to 58 – what are we supposed to believe? We’ve all lost thousands of dollars in income adhering to good-faith bargaining; Doug Gerhart has not lost a dime. Let me be very clear, Mary – WCO musicians are hurting right now; some are hurting BADLY.

    We have the truth, the rule of law which we must follow, and that’s about it. Our employer can say whatever they want to our ticket buyers and the public while we have to do everything by the book. We’ve committed ourselves and our careers to the WCO; all have strived to make this orchestra a top priority, some have even moved here to better facilitate that commitment – for a part-time job!

    Mary, we want the strike and the drama to end. We want to be as “confident about the future” as Doug Gerhart claims to be. To share in that confidence, we must have the truth.

  4. I’m not very familiar with Doug Gerhart; do you think he is part of the problem, or just the messenger? In other words, if there was someone else involved in negotiations, do you think things would go differently? I don’t know what his experience is.

    And, with all due respect, I don’t really know why to believe one “truth” over another. It seems the truth is in the eye of the beholder, whoever that is at the moment.

  5. This is going to sound a little weird, Mary, but bear with me. Doug Gerhart isn’t really part of the problem at all. And for us, that IS a problem. His being relegated to mere messenger (when he is a fully qualified industry expert) has ground these negotiations to a halt. We want to negotiate with Doug; we like him and are glad to have him. We don’t understand why our board won’t let the man do his job. For now, he’s only serving as a very well-paid spokesperson. We hope this changes soon, to everyone’s benefit.

  6. I’m getting the feeling from your comments that you’re one of the WCO musicians; is that the truth? If so, that’s important to know, I guess. I don’t know if this is supposed to be a neutral site or a “platform” site; I thought it was more of an open forum, but maybe not. I don’t really care one way or the other, but just think that if we’re talking about “truth” and conflicts of interest, it should be said.

  7. Hi Mary, I’ll jump in here for a sec and make sure everyone is aware of my perspective on anonymity and comments. In general, I encourage readers to leave their real name with posts but there are circumstances that warrant otherwise. For example, anyone in a position to suffer retribution from a superior for expressing an opinion is a good candidate for using a moniker.

    I’ve had cases where musicians who don’t share the opinion of their colleagues post those feelings in a comment. Likewise, an orchestra manager expressing an opinion contrary to his/her boss is also encouraged to use a moniker. Now, I don’t tolerate unjustified personal attacks nor do I allow individuals to use anonymity to spread unverifiable information. Meaning, if an orchestra staffer or musician wrote to say their organization can’t make payroll this week, I would need to have that verified before I would allow it to be published.

    This is why comments are moderated but NEVER edited; furthermore, comments diverging from my own opinion are regularly posted. All of this contributes a platform that provides an environment of meaningful discussion that doesn’t shy away from strong opinions.

  8. Drew,

    Thanks for the clarification. I realize it would be important to maintain anonymity in certain circumstances. I guess it’s o.k. as long as the “moderating” doesn’t amount to censorship, with all due respect. I realize also that you need to protect the integrity of the site, but I hope that things aren’t being dismissed if not agreeing with what seems to be sort of a unilateral position. I just want the two sides to come together so that the concerts can return. Truth be told, I’m a subscriber so I have that vested interest. I would wonder if a third party (not the mediators, since I’ve assumed they haven’t been able to get anywhere) could “start over” to get rid of all the emotion and baggage that comes with contentious negotiations that seem to be lasting a long time.

  9. If you’re ever concerned about moderation filtering out certain views, just visit this thread from an article a few days ago: http://adaptistration.com/?p=4302#comments The fact that your above comment has appeared is another clear indication.

    As for bringing in a different mediator to assist in the WCO situation, that is certainly a step that has been successful in other contentious negotiations but individuals with enough influence to bring about a mutually agreeable resolution are few and far between. There have been cases in recent years where this has worked wonderfully and there have been cases where some spectacular individuals have attempted to mediate disputes to no avail, which goes to show that silver bullets don’t exist.

    For the benefit of all stakeholders, issues are examined here in much greater detail than what is allowed in print media outlets. This provides a clearer picture to all stakeholders of not only any given labor dispute but how the issues in each respective instance interact with historical trends and the current orchestral environment.

    I’m certain you’ve noticed that there are no unique quotes from the WCO management or negotiators. They are contacted for quotes prior to each WCO related article but, so far, they decline those opportunities. Fortunately, this isn’t the norm in most situations and you can dig through Adaptistration’s archives for some excellent exchange of views between managers and musicians at other orchestras.

    The unintended result in the WCO articles to date is there is less focus on the WCO’s positions compared to musicians becasue the musicians have been willing to share additional views that go beyond what is reported in the print media.

    All of this demonstrates that any process is only as good as the people involved. Ultimately, you can’t start over in negotiations and people are people, the sort of emotional baggage you describe isn’t easy to shed. Instead, you usually have to work through those issues along with everything else that has taken place and (hopefully) both sides will eventually begin work to restore relationships.

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