Expect Things To Get Worse In Louisville Before They Get Better

It’s almost as if the Louisville Orchestra (LO) has punched the reset button when it comes to labor dispute tactics, thereby placing both sides all the way back to square one; do not pass go, do not collect $200. In particular, the orchestra announced on 8/24/2011 that it has cancelled all concert events through the end of October, but the real indications of regressive mindset are buried in the statement they released announcing the cancellations.

In particular, the statement is filled with Labor Dispute 101 rhetoric blaming the decision on the American Federation of Musicians’ decision to place the orchestra on its Unfair List, thereby prohibiting any opportunity to resolve the dispute. In actuality, both sides could settle the dispute any time they want, provided they come to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement.

Historically, the AFM has removed orchestras from their Unfair List no more than a day following the successful ratification of an agreement. So this isn’t a chicken or the egg conundrum, it’s actually a very simple matter to resolve; both parties need to agree on contract terms and the musicians and board need to ratify the document. Consequently, the Unfair List status has absolutely no bearing on that process.

The Red Herring Timeline

All of this nonsense started on the day the bankruptcy court approved the LO’s reorganization plan, here are the major events that took place since then:

  • LO CEO, Robert Birman, told local reporters that although the orchestra pledged to negotiate with the AFM toward a new work agreement it would also reserve the option of employing musicians under a non-union work agreement. [sws_css_tooltip position=”center” colorscheme=”rosewood” width=”450″ url=”http://www.polyphonic.org/blog/2011/08/louisville-management-arms-tsar-bomba” trigger=”related point” fontSize=”12″]According to Robert Levine at his blog on 8/23/2011, Birman testified in a bankruptcy court proceeding “that the LO Board had authorized him to hire replacement musicians in the event negotiations with the LO musicians were unsuccessful.” [/sws_css_tooltip]
  • Citing Birman’s public statement about hiring non-union musicians, the AFM places the LO on its Unfair List.
  • In response to being placed on the Unfair List, the LO cancels concerts through the end of October along with issuing a statement self fulfilling prophecy that reaching an agreement is precluded by being placed on the Unfair List.

Predictable Is As Predictable Does

Another generic component in the 8/24/2011 LO press statement is the assertion that the orchestra believes the musicians want to return to work under the conditions they have offered but sinister forces are thwarting their desire (melodramatic tenor intended).

“While we believe that local musicians wish to perform, the musician’s bargaining unit and their Union are forbidding their own members from showing up for work. What this means is that a resolution to our labor impasse is not imminent.  As a result of these actions, and with no genuine indication that the Orchestra’s musicians will return to work for the start of the season, the Orchestra has been forced to cancel its September and October concerts at this time.”

Hopefully, that sort of statement will make your head hurt as it’s bursting with more of the same self fulfilling prophecy minded attitudes which all but guarantee things will get worse before they get better. Simply put, if the musicians are so inclined to work but the union is standing in their way, they can simply resign from the AFM and avoid the prospect of any fines or related penalties for showing up to work.

Not Another Detroit

In case you might be thinking this situation could play out like the labor dispute in Detroit, think again. One of the key differences here that will likely influence musician [sws_css_tooltip position=”center” colorscheme=”rosewood” width=”450″ url=”” trigger=”resolve” fontSize=”12″]remember, the Detroit musicians eventually caved to the vast majority of management demands [/sws_css_tooltip] is the current LO offer moves the musicians from earning a modest living wage to earning less than the Federal poverty threshold.

It would be surprising, if allowed to continue unabated, events have any impact among the LO musicians other than increased resolve to the point of moving the orchestra toward liquidation. As a result, don’t be surprised if things drag out longer than they did in Detroit.

Unstoppable Force, Meet An Immovable Object; Immovable Object, Meet An Unstoppable Force.

So What’s The Point? If the LO is resolved not to go beyond their current offer or any other zero sum modification based on the court approved bankruptcy plan and the musicians are resolved to an equally deep line in the sand, why bother. Why lose sleep, damage reputations, and create even uglier institutional scars?

Hopefully, the fact that both sides haven’t wrapped it up is an indication that this is all a bunch of needless brinkmanship. At the same time, it could also be an indication that times are changing and the LO board is spoiling for a non-union fight unlike anything we’ve ever witnessed by setting into motion events that lead to hiring non-union musicians.

Since I’m an optimist, I’d like to believe this is all 101 level brinkmanship resulting from the bankruptcy court decision. Of course, it is a shame that mutual respect and professionalism have yet to dominate discourse and actions but that’s what you can expect when agendas and politics get involved.

Speaking of getting involved, the Louisville Courier-Journal reports that Louisville mayor Greg Fisher met with all parties yesterday with the goal of learning more about what divides both sides. My guess is it won’t produce much since both sides aren’t likely to explore real motivations behind their current actions. At the same time, it will hopefully serve as a first step toward reaching that point.

Are events from this week an indication that things are getting better in Louisville, are they a sign that things a degrading, or is it something else entirely? What do you think?

Read the complete Louisville Orchestra Statement

The Louisville Orchestra Announces Cancellation of September and October Performances

Musician’s Union Threatens to Fine Musicians Willing to Work

Louisville, KY ( August 24, 2011 )… While gratified by the U.S. Federal Court’s affirmation this month of the Orchestra’s plan of re-organization, ending the bankruptcy of the 75-year old organization, the Louisville Orchestra’s Board of Directors regrettably this week has been forced to cancel a portion of its fall concert series as their musicians remain unwilling to work.

This week the musician’s union in New York formally threatened to fine union members if they show up to work – a move that Orchestra management and the Board of Directors says is regrettable and not conducive to delivering a platform for a healthy future, nor great music to the citizens of Louisville.

“Progress on our labor negotiations is on a distant and predictable path,” says Orchestra CEO Robert Birman. “While we believe that local musicians wish to perform, the musician’s bargaining unit and their Union are forbidding their own members from showing up for work. What this means is that a resolution to our labor impasse is not imminent.  As a result of these actions, and with no genuine indication that the Orchestra’s musicians will return to work for the start of the season, the Orchestra has been forced to cancel its September and October concerts at this time.”

Due to contractual obligations with guest artists and concert venues and to provide patrons with ample forewarning, the Louisville Orchestra Board of Directors has formally adopted a policy to provide a 60-day advance cancellation notice of scheduled concerts and musicians were notified of the policy this past summer. Six concerts in all, including Pops, orKIDStra, Coffee and Classics series will be affected. Guest artists who do not appear on scheduled concerts this year have agreed, in advance, to be re-engaged for a future season.

Orchestra officials have offered and agreed to enter into mediation, a process that has been underway for a number of weeks.

“The Orchestra is offering employment for $925 per week plus benefits,” says Birman. “That is a highly competitive wage for any professional musician and precisely the same weekly pay scale that all parties felt was acceptable for the entire season last year.”

Board Chairman, Charles Maisch says, “While we sincerely wish we could count on significant increases in annual income year after year in order to maintain the cost structure of the past, it is not prudent or responsible to commit to a labor contract that our community cannot reliably afford.”

All subscribers are to receive notification by mail of the cancellations with options for refunds on August 25. The Orchestra escrowed all ticket sales monies this spring, in an effort to honor its refund policy in the event that concerts were cancelled. More than $360,000 in season tickets have been sold for the upcoming season. The season-opening concert was to have taken place on September 10, 2011.

Future updates will be posted on the Orchestra’s website.

LO Musicians Speak Out On Decision To Cancel Orchestra

The Louisville Orchestra, Inc. (LOI) has issued a new press release that takes its spinning of untruths to new lows while dealing a sucker punch to the public as well as its musicians by cancelling the first two months of the Louisville Orchestra’s 75th Season less than two days before a mediation session being convened this Friday by the Mayor of Louisville. Contrary to LOI management’s fanciful assertions, Louisville Orchestra musicians do want to work and do want to present a season – and we’ve been negotiating to get a fair contract and go to work at the beginning of the season in early September. We’ve been met with diminishing offers from LOI at every step. Now we are working through a trusted city mediator who is trying to get the parties to a resolve.

Instead, today, without notice, without even a phone call, management just canceled the first two months of the season –seventeen performances, including our Fanfara and the Kentucky Opera. These performances are really important to our season subscribers, and now they’re gone. They’re important to Louisville. It costs us work, but it costs the fans more. We don’t understand how LOI can negotiate while at the same time it is destroying the organization’s standing in the community. Management is trying to make it look like there is a strike by blaming the American Federation of Musicians for musicians “refusing to work.” There is no strike! The LO, Inc. canceled the work: if anything, it’s a lockout.

Louisville Orchestra musicians want to work. But we can’t work part-time. Mr. Birman claims to offer employing 71 musicians. The reality of the offer is for only 40 musicians to have 30 weeks’ employment at $925 per week (which as it isn’t truly “full-time”), for 18 musicians to have 20 weeks at the same weekly rate, and for 13 musicians to have only 10 weeks of work. This is not full-time work for a full-time orchestra, and it doesn’t work for presenting a season of symphonic performances. We aren’t part-timers, and though it may seem odd, we literally can’t take other part-time jobs. Orchestra work comes at irregular times- mornings, afternoons, evenings, nights, and weekends. No one week is the same as another, so we can’t pick up other regular, part-time work. We can only do one job, playing our instruments, and that job has to be enough to pay the bills. We’d work tomorrow for the same as we had last year and under the same contract, but management won’t allow that. It erroneously believes that it can successfully starve its musicians into submission and deliver to the community a far inferior product – and yet maintain its position artistically and financially. Give us a chance to work now for what we had, and we’ll keep negotiating for the future.

Musicians didn’t cancel these fall concerts — we couldn’t. Management did — only it controls the schedule. This is hard on our fans, and we don’t blame them for being upset. We’re upset, too. It is not a decision we made, or would ever have made. Since LOI management put the season in jeopardy, we ask the people of Louisville to step in to help, to speak up.

Louisville is an arts town, but won’t continue to be an arts town without an orchestra – a real orchestra, of the high caliber that has earned Louisville a worldwide reputation. There’s still time to fix this before management does any further damage. We’ll work; just give us some concerts to play, and a living wage.

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 “Expect Things To Get Worse In Louisville Before They Get Better”

  1. Two points/requests: First, can you please clarify (more specifically, provide numbers) for your assertion about the most recent offer being below the poverty line? I assume you are talking about the musicians who would be on the 10-week contract at about $900 per week. Note that this is not even the majority of musicians under management’s proposal. I find this statement misleading, inflammatory, and designed to be a soundbite. If so, your statement doesn’t help a reasonable conversation, which is what they need.

    Second, would you please comment (or post) on the musician’s press release regarding the cancellation? They make a number of interesting assertions, including that it is not possible for musicians to take on other part-time work, citing things like the irregular schedule inherent to orchestras. As any student musician can tell you, it is entirely possible to work part-time in an orchestra and hold down another part-time job, despite the irregular schedule. That statement struck me as posturing, not a serious concern.

    Thanks for the continuing coverage.

    • The poverty threshold figures are included in the Federal Register and provided by the Department of Health and Human Services and a link to that source is actually provided right in the article (attached to the word “threshold”). I am sorry you missed that but for convenience sake, here’s the direct link: http://aspe.hhs.gov/poverty/11poverty.shtml

      Consequently, the musicians under the proposed B and C tiers would easily fall under the threshold, especially those with dependents. The group A musicians only manage to rise above that threshold by a slim margin and even dip below if they have as many as five dependents.

      I have not received a copy of the musicians’ press statement you referenced, but if I do receive an official copy, I’ll be happy to post it alongside the official LO statement.

      • Yes, I saw the link and viewed the table, but table varies depending on how many are in the household. Because you said “threshold,” I inferred that you meant the lowest level on the table, which is $10,890 for a one-person household. From your response, I think you are using the numbers for a three-person household, which is $18,530, yes? Using *base*-salary figures, C-contract players would pull in $9250 per year (10 weeks out of the year, assuming no other income for the other 42 weeks), and B-contract players would take $18,500 (same assumptions with 32 extra weeks).

        Under these numbers, C-contract players would fall under both the 1- and 3-person household poverty levels. B-contract players would narrowly fall below the 3-person household numbers (by $30, not quite “easily,” as you put it).

        I point all of this out because your statement that “the current LO offer moves the musicians from earning a modest living wage to earning less than the Federal poverty threshold” does not capture this nuance and suggests a much starker picture. It also includes an unstated assumption that the LO musicians would all be sole bread-winners in their 3-person households, and that they would not seek work (or unemployment) for the remainder of the year. You also fail to point out that A-contracts make up the majority of the offer (40 of 71), which would all be above the poverty level until they had a 5-person household.

        This may or may not swing the balance, but it is important information for the discussion and is necessary to prevent your statement from being misleading.

        For convenience, the musicians’ press release is at http://www.lomusicians.org/?p=399.

      • The ability to earn income aside from that provided by the LO is beside the point in this situation as the issue is centered around the pay scale of the previous contract, which paid the living wage, as compared to the terms in new contract. In case you have not yet had the time to review the HHS information and for the sake of clarity, the term Poverty Threshold is what is used for statistical purposes, such as the exercise here, and encompass the information on the HHS webpage. Moreover, any comparison or discussion on this topic should be made using base compensation levels; it would be (at best mind you) disingenuous to do so otherwise, especially for the employees within that wage level.

        Whether or not a household with dependents decides to send both parents to work or have one home to raise the child(ren) is entirely a personal choice; so assumptions otherwise applied universally fall under the disingenuous perspective mentioned above. As a result, the statements contained in the article are entirely accurate and quite apt; furthermore, they wold apply equally to any staffer faced with with equal reductions in pay. Unfortunately, we aren’t able to explore those situations with this level of transparency because those wages are not public record.

        But what’s important here is to not play fast and loose with these statistics; so in order to provide more details for you to better see the larger picture let’s quickly look at the B-contract scenario you provided. Under the proposed wages, the base compensation is $18,500; which you’ve pointed out is $30 less than the poverty threshold for a household of three. So when you take into consideration that the latest census figures indicate that the average American household is comprised of four members, yes, those B-contract musicians easily fall below the threshold level of $22,350 for a household of four.

        I am glad to see that you brought up the matter of unemployment; I understand that is a relevant topic that may appear as a talking point if the labor disagreement drags on. And thank you for the link to the press statement, I’ll see about adding it at the end of the article shortly.

    • A quick note to the anonymous author of this comment thread: Your latest comment arrived but I think we’ve covered enough at this point for readers to process, per your last comment, the discussion becomes a circular argument and fails to produce anything productive. However, if you want to continue the discussion privately, you can send me a private message but there’s no way for me to reply directly as the email address used in your comments is non functional.

      • Anonymous is very concerned that the wage offer appears to be slightly below the poverty threshold, and he obviously believes it falls above the threshold. What strikes me in the face is what a pitiful offer it is for what was a full-time job, whether you call it poverty or not.

      • Forgive me in advance if I’m misinformed about the situation. While it seems that management has left the negotiation table a larger question sits in my mind. Can Louisville truly sustain an orchestra of full time musicians? Looking briefly at the size of Louisville and similar cities’ orchestras (such as Memphis, OKC, Austin) gives me a sense that maybe the answer is no, and that the musicians need to realize that situation and be willing to work part time instead. Is this the way to have the best orchestra ever? No, but, again other musicians in similar cities have to deal with this reality. The argument that the issue is a pay cut just doesn’t sit with me, because really there is just a work cut.

        Question to the musicians- does management propose an unfair rate of pay per service/week? Is the schedule really so convoluted that having other means of employment is impossible? Is the rehearsal/ service time actually more than stated, leading to issues related to the previous questions?

      • Yes, the schedule is really so convoluted that having other means of employment is impossible. You better believe it. On a “Classics week,” rehearsals might be Tuesday and Wednesday, 9:30-12 and 1:30-3:30 both days. That means I leave my house at 8:30 in order to have time for a good warm-up; and during lunch break I rest my muscles and tendons before another quick practice session before the second rehearsal. The concert is the next day at 10:30 and again Friday night at 8:00, very often with a Friday morning rehearsal for a completely different concert. Saturday would typically be a Pops rehearsal in the afternoon and a Pops concert that night, or perhaps instead a family concert in the mid-morning. Naturally, with such tight scheduling, I must know all my music before the first rehearsal even begins, which means that while I’m doing all this, I’m looking at the music for next week.

        The next week will have a completely different schedule (opera? concerts for schoolchildren? ballet?), unless, of course, it’s an unemployment week. Anyone want to hire a violinist with a Master’s Degree from Yale School of Music for just one week while she’s in between orchestra weeks?

        Now consider what the Louisville Orchestra, Inc., is offering us: 40 musicians get 30 weeks of work per year—these are non-contiguous weeks, each one different from the week before. 20 musicians would get 20 weeks of work (no benefits); and 10 would get 10 weeks (no benefits). What kind of living-wage job with benefits could I possibly find that would fit with those conditions?

        And that’s not even considering the question of WHEN I would practice the violin to be at the skill level I’m supposed to be at.

        It’s hard for people who haven’t lived the life, or been close to someone who does, to understand our schedules and the working conditions. I can’t even get a steady babysitter who will work with my crazy schedule!

  2. I am a single head of household with with 2 dependent (household size of 3). As a cellist in the Louisville Orchestra I was required for all services (except for one opera for which I only played rehearsals to serve as standby in case of illness of another musician even though the LOI would like you to believe I’m never there). In 2010, my Social security wages were 30,622 from the Orchestra. from that figure, the LOI is asking me to take a $21,000 reduction in wages and another $2500 in health insurance benefits.

    In 2010, I also had an additional $6000 of income from some teaching and gigs. All income I make must be claimed when filing for unemployment, so what use to be additional income is now the primary source of income. Furthermore, unemployment benefit rates are base on 4 quarters of income. After 12 months, the benefit will be based on $9,250 which will yield $124 benefit if eligible (but if considered part time probably not eligible). This is not an offer worth considering.

    The whole unfortunate scenario could have played out quite differently if the LOI had opted to work with musicians to see what IS possible rather than to attempt to manipulate the community into believing that a full time, fully staffed SYMPHONY is not possible and that magically the quality won’t be affected. They chose the regrettable path of Bankruptcy last November to seek the courts help for relief from the Collective Bargaining Agreement with its musicians and the “binkmanship” or destruction (if you prefer) continues. With the 75th Anniversary season and the release of “Music Makes a City”, there were other options to capitalize upon which the LOI chose to dismiss. So many lost opprtunities. Mr Birman should rethink this today and agree to seek advice from an objective industry professional. Will things get worse? Perhaps if the fees to attorneys (who don’t always give sound advice and don’t really seem care about the institution) can be redirected into the organization, it might prevent further unnecessary harm.

  3. I have already commented about the LO situation in letters to the CJ, on different blogs and directly to LOI’s officials. The battle has become a personal quest for Mr. Birman. He believes that his career will stand or fall on the success or failure of his “vision” for the LO’s future. As long as he is at the helm, I cannot see a chance for an adequate resolution of the current impasse. Moreover, the Board of the LOI appears to be a weak body that simply echos Mr. Birman position. No less disappointing in this ordeal is the thundering silence of the LO music director and conductor, Maestro Mester. Has he abandoned ship, while the passengers are still on it?

  4. In response to anonymous’ comment about working part time being posturing with students being able to do it, and in support of my fellow musicians in The Louisville Orchestra, I’d like to comment about working part time outside of music while trying to play music professionally. I am qualified to speak on this matter, as I have attempted this earlier in life just after music conservatory, and again mid career. For a normal week, there will be typically 5 rehearsals for the 2 or 3 concerts that will take place at the end of the week. These rehearsals will be about 2:30, and the concerts about the same in length. You need to understand that musicians don’t just walk into the work place, take the instrument out of the box 5 minutes before the rehearsal or concert and start playing. There is a lot more to it than apparent to the general public. Most of us will spend at least 45 minutes prior to a rehearsal or concert warming up and taking yet another look at some of the more difficult passages to be performed. Rehearsals are in the morning, afternoon, and sometimes evening if there is a volunteer chorus (most are). Concerts are normally in the evening on or around the weekends. All the musicians I know are perfectionists. They practice their craft at home for at least the same amount of time they do on the job, and often longer. That adds up to at least 40 hours of work right there, and it is never at the same time every day every week. I tried working part time in music while trying to earn a livable wage outside of music. The employer that was paying me the livable wage needed me there. They had very little flexibility in allowing me time off to go and play my horn. Sometimes, an orchestra will get onto a bus and go out on tour or play a concert in another area of the state. Sometimes we have youth concerts in the schools during the day, and some other concerts at night, may be all of the above while on the road for a week. What non-music employer is going to give me the week off so I can go play my horn? We teach private lessons in our homes and local universities, and take other playing jobs and recording sessions to supplement our income. We juggle these extra items in and around a symphonic work schedule. When we have a morning rehearsal, a few hours of teaching in the afternoon, and an hour or two of personal practice time, and then a concert at 7:30 or 8PM, where do you see time in a day like that to go work a part time shift at another place of employment? And even if it is somehow doable, how do you think I am going to sound at the hardest part of my work day when it occurs at 9:30PM at the high point of the concert? Playing at a very high level during a concert requires being rested and ready to go from 8PM-10PM for every concert. Do you want to pay $25 or more for a concert ticket, and have your experience be less than you expect because we are all drop dead tired at the end of the day when the work is also the hardest? I tried to sustain a free lance musician schedule which is even more hectic that a symphonic schedule because there is more driving to different venues for different gigs. I eventually had to quit playing the horn because I needed steady income from my livable wage employer. Working here and there in music doesn’t usually provide the kind steady income people supporting families require. I would also like to add an additional thought about menial work and being a career musician. I am 46 years old. I have been playing my instrument since I was 10, or for 36 years, 25 of those years professionally. I spent all of my efforts training for this highly specialized career. There are very few of us that could just go out and do something else for a living. For you to assume that we are able to do so without several years of college or other vocational training is ludicrous. I have friends that were career musicians in places where the orchestra was no longer a viable source of income. When they left, and it was mid life, right about where I am now, they had to leave music for good because they went back to school for 4 or more years to learn a new trade.

    I highly recommend that you become acquainted with a professional musician that is working full time in music, and see what the lifestyle is like. Go spend a week or two with one of us. We get out of bed the same time you do every day, and when you are putting your head down on your pillow for the night, we are often at the most thrilling moment for our audience, and the hardest part of our work day. If you employ student musicians then it will sound like a student orchestra. No offense younger people, I was there once too. If I work all day at a menial job, and show up to play a concert with little practice and limited rehearsal, I will sound like a student, and maybe even worse! Enough said!

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