Louisville's Dance In The Dark

The 8/22/2011 edition of the Louisville Courier-Journal published an article by Elizabeth Kramer that reports on the fallout following the American Federation of Musicians’ (AFM) decision to place the Louisville Orchestra (LO) on its Unfair List in response to orchestra CEO’s public statement that the orchestra would pursue using non union represented musicians if they fail to come to an agreement with the AFM.

According to Kramer’s report, LO CEO, Robert Birman, may not see the move as anything more than saber rattling at best and at worst, a bluff.

“It’s just a step in a dance, and I wouldn’t encourage people to put too much weight in it,” [Birman] said. “The thing that’s perverse about it is that we aren’t agreeing to a contract we cannot afford.”

Ironic dance metaphors aside, Birman is correct in that, historically, once an agreement is reached orchestras on the AFM’s Unfair List are removed post-haste and being placed on the list is not a bargaining showstopper. But times are far from typical and the one element within what would otherwise be a tedious round of public barbs is the AFM’s claim that the LO owes $3 million in penalties for withdrawing from the AFM’s pension fund; a debt that was not satisfied by the recently completed bankruptcy proceedings.

The complexities involved with that issue (which we examined in yesterday’s article) indicate that shrugging this off is a luxury neither side can afford.

Although Birman has yet to respond to requests for a response to the AFM’s decision, what’s missing from Kramer’s article is any indication or affirmation of the initial comment that started the chain of events; in particular, that the LO would pursue using non union represented musicians if they fail to come to an agreement with the AFM. Kramer highlights this same point in her article (emphasis added).

We’re working various channels to get to an agreement within our state and our city,” he said. “And if that doesn’t result in a successful outcome, we will consider all other options available to us.”

Birman chose not to specify those channels or options.

At this point, anything is possible; including, and not limited to, the orchestra’s board deciding that a prolonged, ugly labor dispute isn’t what they signed on for and the best option may simply be shutting down the organization and liquidating. From there, some of the existing board members alongside a new group of leaders can decide whether or not fielding a professional orchestra with a work agreement that is satisfactory to all parties is worth pursuing.

The only real potential for surprise in all of this is if the LO wasn’t using the non union comment as bluster following the court’s favorable ruling. If that’s the case and the leadership has a clear point where they feel implementing that option is better than continued bargaining with their current musicians and the AFM, then we’re all going to see some terrific fireworks. Of course, the musicians could just as well decide they’ve had enough and fold under the weight of continued pressures.

One way or another, something will happen.

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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0 thoughts on “Louisville's Dance In The Dark”

  1. Speaking as one of the violinists, the musicians won’t be folding. We took a 26% pay cut 5 years ago. (Last season our base pay was roughly $32,000.) The “last best and final offer” which we rejected in May 2011 would have gutted our jobs to part-time status. I can’t afford to live on $14,000/year with no benefits—especially when the job would have me working irregular hours morning, noon, and night during the non-contiguous 20 weeks when I was employed by the orchestra. (Some musicians would be making more for 30 weeks of work, and some only $7000 for 10 weeks of work.) So for practical reasons (hello, poverty-level wages?) and reasons having to do with intrinsic work satisfaction (many musicians prefer to move to another city or change careers rather than suddenly find themselves playing in a two-bit, part-time orchestra), the musicians will not be agreeing to the three-tiered pay levels proposed by management.

  2. “The thing that’s perverse about it is that we aren’t agreeing to a contract we cannot afford.”

    I’ve read this sentence 10 times and I can’t make sense of it-especially in the context of the organization being placed on the unfair list- maybe someone can explain?

    I don’t recall any orchestra of Louisville’s status that has been successfully replaced by non union musicians. This shows Mr. Birman’s complete lack of understanding of how the orchestral business.in this country works. Having just returned from the ICSOM conference in Detroit last week I can attest that there is an incredible amount of support for our colleagues in Louisville, as well as Syracuse, New Mexico and Honolulu. The only way there will be music in Louisville is with the members of the Louisville Symphony- the sooner the CEO and board realizes that, the sooner a resolution can be found.

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