Defining The Debate In Richardson

The labor dispute between the Richardson Symphony Orchestra (RSO) and their musicians, represented by Local 72-147 of the American Federation of Musicians, has crossed a new threshold in the war of rhetoric. Email messages from both parties dated 7/8/2010 and addressed to RSO musicians attempt to define the issues that characterize the dispute…

Does either side present a convincing argument?

RSO Executive Director George Landis attempted to define the labor dispute as a battlefield for right-to-work issues. In response, RSO principal horn and players’ committee chair Brian Brown asserted that the dispute is the result of repeated instances of contract violations, failure to receive payments owed, and an assortment of workplace abuses toward musicians. Both messages are published below and with the exception of removing telephone numbers, they are unedited and uncut.

Letter From George Landis To RSO Musicians

Good morning!

We thought we would take a few moments to bring you up to date on some events that have transpired over the past week and to address some of the questions you’ve called in to us in the past few days.  There’s no doubt that these are difficult times for the RSO and that you, as our musicians, face important decisions in the coming days. As we’ve said before, you have to make the call as to whether you wish to play with the RSO in the coming seasons based on your particular circumstances and your willingness to stand up for your rights to bargain with, and play for, whomever you choose.  Regardless, we will respect your decision [and know that the decision you made was what is right for you].

Questions about being fined, expelled from the union or other abuses should you elect to play for the RSO:

We realize you’ve received correspondence from Brian Brown, Jennifer Garner and Ray Hair threatening  to bar you from working with other orchestras, fine you, and potentially expel you from the union should you agree to play for the RSO in the coming season.  However, the union does not take these actions against other members working for groups that do not have a collective bargaining agreement.  As we have said previously, this may violate the National Labor Relations Act which gives you the right to choose to bargain collectively through a union or not as you see fit.  It also prohibits the union from discriminating against you for exercising your rights under the NLRA.

If you feel threatened or believe that you have or will be discriminated against in any way, consider filing a complaint with the Ft. Worth office of the National Labor Relations Board.  The NLRB exists to protect you from illegal activity.  Their number is XXX-XXX-XXXX.  It’s really a simple process: First, you will be asked some very basic information (names and addresses of the RSO, the union and yourself) and a statement of what your complaint is.  The case officer on duty at the NLRB when you call can answer your questions in detail.  They are extremely helpful and on your side.  They are happy to talk with you and answer any questions you have regardless of whether you decide to file a complaint.  If you do decide to file a complaint, you will be sent a form to fill out.  The NLRB attorneys will then investigate and let you know if they decide to pursue a case against the union (you need never hire your own lawyer…they do all this for you at their cost).  The NLRB’s main objective is to try and settle the case quickly and head off any future violations.  They may also bring a lawsuit against the union in order to obtain an order forbidding the union from further threatening and discriminating behavior.  (There have been several cases similar to this one in the past that have been resolved in favor of the workers.) You may be asked to provide evidence and testify during the trial if it reaches this stage (oftentimes these cases never go to trial though).

Now, we know that standing up to abusive treatment by the AF of M may be the “right thing to do,” but it certainly is not easy.  The NLRB will help (and the more of you that complain, the more likely they are to take immediate action), but it may take some time for them to do so if they cannot settle the case with the union quickly.  You have to decide whether or not to stand up to the union’s efforts to threaten, harass, and deny you the ability to play and earn a living.  One thing to remember though is that if the union takes any action against you, the members, for filing charges with the NLRB, that is a violation the NLRB takes very seriously.

We abhor this treatment of you.  You deserve better and this type of abusive, coercive behavior is far from what an organization that purports to help its members should engage in. It’s just WRONG. Certainly, the RSO is not perfect, and we’ve had our share of problems with paying you on a timely basis in the past, but we have never taken actions to purposefully harm your ability to earn a living, as the local union is now doing.

The unfair Unfair List

We would hope that you are asking yourself, and the union, exactly what it is that the RSO has done to warrant a place on the unfair list.  The RSO is simply exercising its right, under the law, to forego entering into a contract with an organization that has repeatedly stated that it does not wish to aid in the RSO’s mission of performing music for the community and, indeed, would like to see the RSO fail.  Is this something that you really want?  Is the union fairly representing your wishes?  Certainly, Mr. Hair placed the RSO on the list without consulting you, the RSO players, much less having you vote on whether it was the proper course to take.

From our point of view, this is yet another example of the union being all about itself and not the working for the good of its member musicians.  Placing the RSO on the unfair list only punishes the AF of M membership and results in depriving RSO musicians (who are also AF of M members in good standing) of needed work.

The Richardson Symphony has the right to bargain with the union, or not.  The union’s activities over the past few years have forced us to go in the direction of bargaining directly with you, as is our (and your) right.  Other arts organizations in the area have taken similar steps in the past and they are not on the list.  Union members regularly play for formerly-union and non-union organizations without penalty to either party. Why treat us, and more important, YOU, differently?  Is it solely for the love of controversy and the transparent attempts to threaten and intimidate you?  We think so.  This is wrong in so many ways (and likely illegal as well).

The RSO has filed a complaint with the NLRB on this issue and we hope that they will resolve this to our mutual satisfaction in the coming weeks.

Working together

At the meeting last week, we made the statement that we were anxious to develop better, more open communications and actually work together to improve all aspects of the RSO operations—artistic, fundraising, ticket sales, whatever.  Brian Brown said “that is not our job, it’s yours” and Jenifer Garner said it would be “inappropriate” for the union to help in these areas.

We were blown away by this attitude.  Without a doubt, if there were no other reason for the Richardson Symphony to bargain and deal constructively with the individual players without the interference and negativism of the union, this would be the that reason.

Why would it be “inappropriate” for us to work together?  Why is a shared vision of where the orchestra will go in the next decade (or more) and working together to make that happen not all of our jobs?  Why is it wrong for the union to work collectively to help the RSO (and all of the other organizations that pay its members) survive?

The union’s response reveals the inherent and entrenched adversarial relationship it apparently believes is important to its own survival. Mr. Brown and Ms. Garner’s response is the clearest expression of why our Board has chosen not to renegotiate with the AF of M.   In its present state, there is no value to working with the AF of M.  The value will be created between us all working toward a common purpose without the interference of the AF of M.

Look around

Spent any time looking at other AF of M local websites lately?  It’s instructive.  You should do so.

If you go to Houston’s ( you’ll note a “Links” button that takes you to a list of area artists and performing arts groups.  A nice touch…and helpful to the Houston Symphony, Houston Grand Opera and other listed arts groups, no doubt.

Go to Austin ( and there’s a music calendar (which is evidently being updated…last week it had local arts and performance listings) as well as helpful links to hire local artists, etc.  Same basic deal in Kansas City, St. Louis, New Orleans, Memphis, Chicago and on and on.

Go to Local 72-147.  In addition to a listing of bands you can book, some member information, links to a newsletter, etc. you’ll see “Ballet Crisis,”  “Orchestras in Crisis” which rolls over to “Opera Orchestra Crisis,” and “PSO Campaign.” Why does the DFW local have so many crises?  Are they brought on by the arts organizations (which by their nature are generally small, volunteer-driven organizations that are just trying to fulfill their mission during extremely trying times), or is this a symptom of a crisis at the local?  Obviously, we think the latter.

An organization that works to create crisis and chaos is no good for anyone.

And finally…

This email is long but we hope you’ll agree it deals directly with the difficulties you, the musicians of the Richardson Symphony, and we, the management and Board working to keep that organization moving forward, have to face.  It is clear to us that there is a problem at the local AF of M.  It’s unfortunate we all have to deal with it, but all of us must.  We hope you will make the decision to sign your agreement with the RSO and continue to play with Maestro Brusilow and your colleagues in the coming year.

As always, give me a call if you want to talk.  I also gladly accept email, but they take a lot longer to answer.

All the best,

Letter From Brian Brown To RSO Musicians

Dear colleagues:

Because I was named personally in George’s previous email, I feel it appropriate to respond not necessarily in my defense, but as a clarification. It was originally my intent to address each of Mr. Landis’s points individually, but the following paragraph struck my attention:

“We abhor this treatment of you.  You deserve better and this type of abusive, coercive behavior is far from what an organization that purports to help its members should engage in. It’s just WRONG…”

I’d like to address this point specifically, as it seems to be the crux of the entire dispute between the RSO and the Union. On the evening of May 7th, 2010, the players of the orchestra were addressed with the following statement: “People are starving to death, and you’ve got a job. So you’re a little late to get paid. Well wake up, get a life!” They were further admonished with “see, the difference between me and you is that I still love music”. Additionally, musicians were told that they could proceed with leafleting activities, but it would come back to bite us during negotiations. One of our members was singled out and his privately negotiated pay rate was announced before the membership of the entire orchestra. Another one of our members was told in an email from a member of management a few years ago that they were like a turtle without a shell, and was called an expletive by that same member. Yet another member of our orchestra was wrongfully terminated from the orchestra for making what was considered “insubordinate” comments in a conversation preceding a rehearsal. An arbitrator confirmed the inappropriate nature of the dismissal and ordered that player to be reinstated.

Most of the musicians to whom I have spoken consider these statements and actions and many others like them to be abusive or coercive, and would even consider the aforementioned quote from George’s email to be disingenuous. To even imply or insinuate that an employee/independent contractor should feel anything resembling guilt for requesting on-time payment is not only a violation of the mutual respect clause of the contract, but it illuminates a general lack of regard for the players exhibited by management. To repeatedly violate the contract without prior communication to one of the parties, i.e. the AFM Local 72-147, demonstrates a legal abuse of the good will of the players and the good faith of the agreement itself. Furthermore, being told “you’re the employees” when asked why the players were not consulted in the decision to discontinue the relationship with the union, indicates to me that the players’ opinions and wishes do not hold the same importance as those of the board or management. I therefore disagree with and simply do not believe any statement made by management implying that it has the interests of the players in mind. Many of my colleagues would support my assertions.

Regarding my statements on June 30, I feel additional clarification must be made. I never said “that is not our job, it’s yours” when asked about the potential for the Union to help with fundraising, ticket sales, etc. My exact words were “that is not the function of the union”. This is a true statement. The function of the union is to serve as the primary bargaining agent for the players. Any individual player or group of players is free to assist management in brainstorming, donate money, sell tickets, or promote the orchestra. However, the Union exists solely to bargain for its members. It cannot by design participate in the daily operations of an orchestra, as that would pose a conflict of interests.

I would like to close reminding the players of the old adage “management usually gets the union it deserves”. All actions on the part of the Union have been a direct reaction to repeated violations of the contract or abuse of its members by management. The moment a violation occurs and any player alerts the Union of such a violation, it becomes the responsibility of the Union to address it and see that the matter is corrected. The Union acts on behalf of the players as a whole and/or its individual members for the benefit of the entire organization. This means that the players as a whole are inseparable from the Union; we are a subset of a much larger organization of players. That organization has never impeded the fundraising, artistic, or administrative aspects of the RSO or any other company. It simply acts on behalf of its members.

Sincerely and in continued unity and solidarity,
Brian Brown

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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11 thoughts on “Defining The Debate In Richardson”

  1. I have often wondered about the ability of the union to regulate which groups their members are eligible to perform with. And, conversely, which groups can non-members play with?

    There is a lot of talk from musicians of the larger orchestras in the area that “to play with the orchestra, you must join the union”. In a right to work state, are there truly grounds for that type of demand to be made? Or is it simply code for “you will be quietly overlooked if you’re not a member?”

    I’d love to hear any feedback from someone with factual knowledge on the subject.

    • Every orchestra determines their own hiring practices for substitute players. In some cases, the policies and procedures are spelled out in the collective bargaining agreement and in other cases, they aren’t. Ultimately, the personnel manager (or similar administrator) is responsible for contacting substitute players and given the wide variety of hiring practices instituted by orchestras, I have yet to encounter a situation where coercion is used to restrict the substitute pool to only union substitutes.

      From a much more practical perspective, union membership status is the last thing most musicians have to be concerned about with regard to the substitute hiring politics. In fact, even in non right-to-work states, a number of orchestras have provisions that allow substitutes to play a certain number of events with an organization before being required to be a member of a musicians’ union.

      Nonetheless, if any musician has encountered the practices you described and can document their experiences, I’d be interested in hearing about it.

    • @Will – I think that you have hit on something that is fairly common in some areas. I myself have been cajoled into joining the Union, once even in a situation with a brass 5tet in a right-to-work state.

      While in hindsight, I completely understand the importance of labor associations, I do have a bit of a lasting impression that is hard to shake off.

      I felt intimidated or was made to feel guilty into joining rather than understanding the benefits. Since this pressure was coming from other musicians (and not union reps) there may have been other extenuating circumstances.

      Some musicians get a bit surly when it comes to AFM issues. Some working musicians are just surly in general.

  2. I nominate Mr. Landis for the Glen Beck Orchestra Management Award. Kudos to Brian Brown for putting forth what Mr. Landis and Maestro Brusilow seem to have serious issues with…THE TRUTH. This is one of the most obviously transparent and pathetic situations I’ve seen. Hang in there RSO musicians, we are with you.
    In Solidarity,

  3. The RSO board and Mr. Landis want to get rid of the union. They can’t do that if the majority of the orchestra is union players regardless of a CBA being in place or not. It would be a public relations nightmare for the RSO board to lock out the union musicians so they let the union effectively lock itself out via the unfair list.

    • That’s an interesting point Carol and I’m wondering whether or not the RSO board would care. Historically, in instances where labor disputes reach a level similar to this, I’ve never noticed a board with those concerns. those feelings may change after a protracted dispute, but that’s always (unfortunately) after the fact.

      The language used in the 7/1/2010 letter from the RSO board chair (penultimate paragraph) is a strong indication that they are prepared for negative reactions to their decision but have every intention to see the decision through.

      As such, your concerns are certainly worth noting but it seems the RSO board has already worked through those issues and arrived at a course of action.

  4. To Bruce: I share your feelings about being cajoled, or in my case coerced, into joining the union. Not all members are scrupulous even if the intent is noble. Information is key, and after I was hired into the Memphis Symphony a few years ago I would have joined anyway to be part of the process, which is where I think most of the education needs to take place (at least with orchestras in right to work states).
    As to Richardson, I wonder about the legality of preventing union officials, and especially Truax, from attending the meeting where the management announced their intention to end relations with the AFM. After all, their CBA has not yet expired, and the DFW local still legally represents the Richardson Symphony Orchestra musicians. If I was in the Richardson Symphony you better believe that I would be contacting the NLRB, but not for the reasons Landis suggests.

  5. I am watching all this from far away in Austin, TX. We don’t have any of this kind of weird stress down here, but I’m familiar with all of these characters. I used to play for Brusilow, but it was about 12 years ago when Ray Hair came down to Waco Symphony to wrestle control of it to add to his empire. He personally left me with such a feeling of disgust, I have never joined the union.

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