Updates In Seattle

It was an eventful weekend for stakeholders at the Seattle Symphony Orchestra (SSO) as the ensemble crossed the latest benchmark in their ongoing labor dispute. On Sunday 1/17/2010, the musicians unanimously rejected a contract proposal from management and although they have already passed a strike authorization, the musicians have stated that they do not plan to initiate any work stoppage at the present time…

In Seattle, negotiations are shaping up to be about institutional direction as much as anything else.

In a press statement released on Sunday, 1/17/2010 the musicians provided detailed reasons behind the predominant items that resulted in the unanimous rejection of management’s most recent offer. What is interesting here is the top reason has nothing to do with compensation or benefits; instead, the musicians feel that the proposed five year agreement would jeopardize the SSO’s ability to attract the best possible candidates for the impending Executive Director and Music Director openings. According to the musicians’ statement:

The five-year contract proposed by management would make the organization inflexible and unresponsive to the needs and wishes of incoming leadership. This will jeopardize the search for a new Executive Director and Music Director. It also bases wages in 2014 on last year’s economy. We need a short-term agreement to allow the economy to recover and stabilize, and for new Symphony leadership to be in place.

This is an enormously important topic that should not go unnoticed throughout the business. For instance, think back to 2006 when the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJSO) was saddled with crushing debt, without permanent executive leadership, and had no clearly defined strategic plan endorsed by all stakeholders. That organization went for an extended period of time without an executive administrator due, in part, to the lack of a reasonable strategic plan and the group continues to struggle with the outcomes from those missteps. The New Jersey Star-Ledger reported on that topic in an article from 5/7/2006:

In more gloomy news, the orchestra, which has been searching for Woods’ replacement for almost a year, has not interviewed a single candidate for CEO since December. [Interim executive director Stephen] Sichak says that is, in part, because he suspended the process so top staff could formulate a three-year plan for debt reduction and revenue increase. The orchestra has apparently been unable to attract a high caliber of candidate willing to relocate to New Jersey while the orchestra is in financial hot water.

The NJSO’s recent history is something the current SSO leadership could examine in order to help craft an immediate plan of action that focuses on the economic situation without the need to not lock the institution into half a decade of executive auto-pilot. According to the musicians’ statement, it seems as though their primary interest is to bring about institutional stability as soon as possible. To this end, they’ve proposed a two year agreement with cuts in compensation in the first year and a slight increase in the following season. This is in stark contrast to the bargaining approach and negotiation positions reportedly crafted in large part by the board’s consultant, Ralph Craviso that the players voted down last Sunday.

In response to the musicians’ vote on Sunday, the SSO released a statement saying that the organization is focused on creating a solid future.

“…there is a need for a long-term plan and solution to the financial situation we are encountering and we’re reluctantly asking the musicians to make concessions to help us create a stable and solid future for the Symphony.”

It seems clear that both sides have the same goal and since the board has indicated that they intend to return to negotiations “as quickly as the union will meet with us, and seek to find a speedy resolution to this situation” it might be worthwhile if the organization attempted to remove some of the recently introduced variables to see if this might uncover common ground and bring about new solutions.

There is a great deal of potential in exploring solutions that focus on two to three year plans that manage current debt while simultaneously bringing stakeholders together under a common, unilaterally supported, vision.

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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