How Low Can They Go In Louisville

Not that it should come as any surprise but the labor dispute between the Louisville Orchestra (LO) and its musicians sunk to a new all-time low following the facilitated labor agreement negotiations. Here’s what transpired over the past few days.

  • The facilitated talks (which according to a LO musician press statement cost $20k) produced a formal offer from the LO that was pretty much the same as their previous offers.
  • According to inside sources, the LO negotiation committee recommended that the rank and file members reject the offer.
  • The subsequent vote produced the recommended result and the offer was official rejected by the LO musicians.
  • The musicians followed up the rejection with a counter offer which the LO board rejected.

So that’s where things are and now that the press blackout is lifted, both sides didn’t waste much time getting back to banging the drums of labor war. In an article from 10/4/2011 at, Gabe Bullard reported that LO CEO, Robert Birman, has once again alluded that the organization will consider hiring replacement musicians to perform under a non-union work agreement even though the orchestra remains on the American Federation of Musician’s (AFM) Unfair List.

In the same report, Birman says “Chapter 7 [liquidation bankruptcy] is not being considered.” However, LO media relations manager, Heather O’Mara, was quoted in the 10/4/2011 edition of the Louisville Business Journal saying that in addition to options mentioned by Birman, the organization is considering “filing for liquidation under Chapter 7 of the U.s. Bankruptcy Code.”

LO musician spokesperson and musicians’ committee chair Kim Tichenor was quoted in the article saying she thought “this is it”, referencing the likelihood of the organization moving forward. Tichenor was also quoted saying that the musicians have not been making any plans to begin a new organization in the wake of a liquidation.

The 10/4/2011 edition of the Louisville Courier-Journal provides some additional in an article by Elizabeth Kramer with regard to some of the details in the rejected offer as well as the musician counter proposal but at this juncture, the details are of varying consequence.

[sws_box_with_close box_size=”655″ close_button=”sws_red_circle_close” color_box=”sws_yellow_box” rounded_corners=”5″]Be forewarned, professional opinion and commentary abounds from
this point forward.

It seems clear that both sides are holding firm to what they believe is the best course of action, regardless of how much those positions are motivated by stereotypical political agendas and/or poor decision making. What we’re witnessing is another installment of unnecessarily prolonged disputes that would be better served by jumping ahead to what is likely the best solution: Chapter 7.

That’s precisely what unfolded in Honolulu and it’s growing increasing clear that the only individuals benefiting from the dispute are the consultants who are taking home twenty large for nothing more than counter productive life support. And speaking strictly as a consultant who also works with these sorts of situations, I would have been happy to show up and “mediate” the situation for a fraction of the price knowing full well it wasn’t going to produce very much in the [sws_css_tooltip position=”center” colorscheme=”rosewood” width=”300″ url=”” trigger=”first place” fontSize=”12″]As an aside, there’s a moral here somewhere in this mess about ethical practices worth exploring at some point in the future. [/sws_css_tooltip].

Even if either side caves in this dispute, it won’t really fix any of the problems. They’ve passed traditional FUBAR thresholds and my professional advice to stakeholders is this:

  • Managers & Staffers: get out of Dodge as fast as you can. There have been a number of very nice job openings posted at Adaptistration Jobs this past week; stop by and see if there’s one you’re qualified for.
  • Musicians: get out of Dodge as fast as you can. I know a number have already left for other work; some of which is orchestral playing but others have found academic positions.
  • CEO: save every penny, start planning for an employment transition, and take the first reasonable offer that comes along.
  • Board: unless staying in the fight offers some sort of side political benefit (in which case, I’m sorry), resign now and move on to a new philanthropic endeavor.
  • Patrons: buy a bottle (or twelve) of your favorite spirit, put on an old LO recording, and gently sob while lamenting the fact that you no longer have a professional symphonic orchestra.

Sure, all of that is pretty dark and one big downer; but unless there’s some radical change in store, it’s the most likely outcome from the current mess. Neither side has displayed any real vision or leadership, which only reinforces the notion that having either side cave only prolongs the dysfunction.

Certainly, a new orchestra could rise from the ashes of this conflagration to one day maximize the community’s true potential; but even in the best of situations that still takes time, plus we have to wait for the blaze to burn itself out before it can be considered. Meanwhile, the phrase “burn baby, burn” comes to mind.

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 “How Low Can They Go In Louisville”

  1. Drew, actually the two sides are not far apart. The long struggle has achieved one aim of the LOI – a number of LO members have fled. We (LO musicians) do not have enough power to fight for empty chairs, so a de-facto smaller orchestra already exists.

    Even though the LOI’s last proposal showed some real movement from them we had no choice but to reject it. Even if we could have been convinced to eliminate 21 jobs from the 71 in the previous agreement, including 12 musicians (nearly all strings) currently in the city, there were these added tidbits in the proposal: Withdrawal from the AFM pension fund (this would damage the AFM pension fund, make our pension no longer portable to another orchestra, and would be replaced by something the definition of which is still cloudy to me; and completely unnecessary work rule changes including fewer toilets for musicians at outdoor performances, increase in allowable temperature at outdoor performances up to nearly 100 degrees (come watch violin varnish melt!), earlier and later rehearsal times allowed (to get us caught in the massive snarls caused by the recent bridge closing?), etc. A musician friend of mine in another city told me that the term for this is a “f_ _ _-you offer,” one that the other side either hopes we will reject or wants to ram us us wiith whatever they can, if we at such a point we will take anything. I hope this is not the case, but what are we to think?

    The musicians’ counter-proposal would keep a nearly-full orchestra and would keep all LO musicians that are still in Louisville employed for VIRTUALLY THE SAME BOTTOM LINE as the management’s proposal – but was turned down by the management’s lawyer, in less than 15 minutes.

    This is not about money, it is about authority and submission.

    LOI is giving mixed signals now – in one interview late Tuesday, Birman said “It’s moving in the right direction. We need that movement to continue on both sides.”

    and a couple of hours later, in another interview, said:
    “[Birman] is not sure whether it would be wise to continue negotiating with the Louisville Federation of Musicians . … board members will determine [at the next meeting] how much more time, if any, should be given to continued negotiations. … [the board] meets twice a month … additional meetings are a possibility.”

    The LO will survive, but only if Louisville decides it actually wants an orchestra. The members have done all they can, short of cooking and eating each other on local TV – would THAT satisfy those who started this?

    Raymond Horton
    Bass Trombonist, Louisville Orchestra

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