Deconstructing The Louisville Letter

In what could be considered a metaphorical shot heard ’round the world, the Louisville Orchestra (LO) sent a letter to musicians dated 10/24/2011 informing them that if they acknowledge that they are “ready to work and accept, unconditionally, the terms and conditions outlined in [the] individual offer of employment” by 5:00pm CT, October 31, 2011 they will be replaced.


The three page letter was distributed the same day that the organization apparently began to officially accept applications for permanent replacement musicians. Much of the letter appears to rely on intimidation as it does mission driven rationale in order to persuade musicians to agree to the individual employment offer.

Page 1, Paragraph 4: The LOI will begin soliciting applications for permanent replacements for open positions on October 24, 2011. Unless we receive an affirmative notice from you by 5:00 p.m. on Monday, October 31, 2011 that you intend to return to work with the LOI, we will treat such lack of notice as your intention to continue to with hold your labor.

Likewise, artistic excellence seems to have taken a secondary position to high pressure tactics in that the LO intends to assign positions for replacement musicians based more on a first come, first serve basis rather than artistic objectivity.

Page 1, Paragraph 4: Priority for section seating will be considered based on the date and time such notices are received by the LOI office.

Page 1, Paragraph 5: If the LOI hires a permanent replacement for your position and you subsequently make an unconditional offer to return to work, you will only be eligible for a vacant position for which you are qualified to fill.

Page 3, Paragraph 1: Priority for section seating will be considered based on the date and time such notices are received by the LOI office.

UPDATE 9:55am CT: my interview with Joe Elliott on 10/26/11 at 970WGTK about the LO situation is now available:

The interview took place live during the 2:00-3:00pm ET hour of Joe’s show and the version below has been edited down to just the Louisville Orchestra segment; to listen to the entire hour, you can download the clip here. Many thanks to Mr. Elliott for devoting so much time to better understanding a very complex set of issues.

There is no mention whether any replacement workers will be hired under a collective bargaining agreement; in fact, the final page of the letter contains what the LO has labeled an “Employment Acceptance Form.” However, basic terms are spelled out on page 2:

  • Base weekly minimum salary per musician of $925 per week, for fifty (50) musicians
  • 30 weeks of annual employment and public programming
  • Comprehensive insurance benefits identical to those provided in the recently-expired, collective bargaining agreement between AFM, LOMC and LOI
  • Permanent employment will be offered for the following positions:
    • String: Ten (10) first violins; Eight (8) second violins; Five (5) violas; Five (5) cellos; Three (3) basses
    • Woodwinds: Three (3) flutes; Two (2) oboes; Two (2) clarinets; Two (2) bassoons
    • Brass: Four (4) horns; Two (2) trumpets; Two (2) trombones
    • Percussion: One (1) timpani; One (1) percussion

Similarly, it appears that the LO intends to move forward as a non-union orchestra.

Page 1, Paragraph 3: We do not require any musician to resign their Union membership in order to work for the LOI nor do we require musicians who work for the LOI to retain Union membership. Union membership and the related implications are a personal choice.

Some select legalese exists throughout the letter, most notably multiple instances that the current work stoppage is a result of the musicians withholding their services. In essence, the LO’s letter is designed to affirm their stance that the musicians are on strike, a charge that the musicians have denied. This is important because of the ongoing struggle over whether or not the musicians can claim unemployment benefits.

Page 1, Paragraph 3: If you prefer to retain your current position in the LOI, the Board and management of LOI welcome your election to work.

Page 1, Paragraph 4: Unless we receive an affirmative notice from you by 5:00 p.m. on Monday, October 31, 2011 that you intend to return to work with the LOI, we will treat such lack of notice as your intention to continue to with hold your labor.

Page 3, Paragraph 1: Unless we receive an affirmative notice from you by 5:00 p.m. on October 31, 2011 that you intend to return to work with the LOI, we will treat such lack of notice as your intention to continue to withhold your labor.

Page 3, Paragraph 2, Sentence 1: If you indicate a willingness to work, and fail to appear and perform, your absence will be treated as your election to continue to withhold your labor.

Page 3, Paragraph 2, Sentence 3: Failure to return a copy of this letter with your commitment by the date above will be treated as a refusal to work.

Page 3, Second of Two Options: NO. I voluntarily refuse to work or to accept the terms and conditions outlined in my individual offer of employment dated October 24, 2011.

In the end, this is an unprecedented event in the field and although there is a slim ray of hope that the LO will retract the letter and return to mediated bargaining, it is increasingly unlikely. From this point forward, it’s all unchartered waters, which means there are plenty of questions.

  • Will the AFM respond with a similar level of aggressive tactics?
  • Will some of the LO musicians return an employment agreement before the deadline; if so, how many?
  • Will the LO release application material and job descriptions for the replacement musicians?
  • Will the LO release details on how they plan to evaluate applications and whether they intend to conduct a traditional audition?
  • Will audition and concert events be accompanied by musician demonstrations?
  • How will social media influence events (remember the Sarah Chang debacle in Detroit)?

Tomorrow’s article will examine some of these questions in addition to exploring some logistics within these unknowns but until then, what do you think about all of this?

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 “Deconstructing The Louisville Letter”

  1. I’ve posted my thoughts elsewhere and am still trying to process this. Sadly, given how LOI has been dealing with the musicians (especially the consistent non-competing work clause first leveled at Keep Louisville Symphonic, but which seems to keep popping up in most of the subsequent offers) I am still not entirely surprised it’s come to this. What I am surprised with is that there hasn’t been a bigger exodus of board members than there has been and really wonder whether they understand the implications of what LOI is attempting to do. Most of the folks I’ve talked with (non-LO musicians) are really hoping the musicians will just cut their losses and form their own organization, which I think might be their best bet now. Preferably I’d like to see one modeled after the Louisiana Phil. Really looking forward to what you have to say about all this, Drew!

  2. The AFM’s power in negotiations comes from collective solidarity, and the fact that if an orchestra management refuses to engage with the AFM in setting terms and conditions for employment, they will suffer by losing access to the AFM’s talent pool. Based on that I would expect the AFM to blacklist anyone who tries to replace dismissed Louisville players. Frankly, as an AFM member, I would be a little shocked if this did not occur.

    If the AFM takes that course of action, I don’t know how many orchestral players are going to permanently destroy any hope of playing in any other full-time orchestra for under $30k a year. If it doesn’t happen, the AFM will not have any leverage in future negotiations except for those in which the management already wishes to create a positive relationship with players. What use is the threat of a strike if an orchestra management can simply dismiss everyone in response and hire new players who need work?

    I’m a music student who lives pretty close, is running out of money, is getting out of school soon and desperately needs a job. I won’t be taking that audition.

  3. Dear Mr. McManus;

    Do you believe that the LO management and board actually understand that they have selected the nuclear option here, or is it that they do fully understand, but at this point they just don’t care? Not only would it be a career-ender for musicians to cross this management-created line in the sand, but it also seems to me that it will be a probable career-ender for any current management with the LO to stay with such an anti-union group and then later on try to move to a new job within the professional orchestra industry. Sure, some boards may want them, but the musicians within those other groups would most assuredly strongly object. Do you think that the current LO management (and staff) understand that if the LO folds due to this impasse, that they too will be out of a job and, with them now being radioactive due to their non-union goals, that no orchestra in the country will dare hire them due to the unbelievable blow-back from the AFM musicians and unionized stage crews at potential future employers? I could be wrong, but don’t these LO leaders now have very large targets on their backs? Would not everyone in leadership associated with such an anti-union organization (management and some staff members) be tainted?

    • Although I don’t think the entire board is of a single mind on this, I don’t get the sense that they realize just how big of a quagmire this will become if they continue to move forward. This is the point where leaders in the field – including service organizations such as the League, should rise up beyond closed door efforts and make it clear that moving down this sort of path will do nothing but cause problems and hurt the entire field. This will polarize musicians and embolden the radical elements on both sides of the fence, which is precisely the last thing executives and boards elsewhere doing a good job at keeping their organizations from flying apart need.

      Unfortunately, it’s much easier to pick a fight than set aside agendas these days but there’s always the hope that people will find the courage to step up publicly and keep Pandora from getting out of her box.

  4. One of these days, a group of musicians like this will free themselves from oppression of management and organize their own orchestra co-operative. I know that Louisiana Phil operates on this model, but this has to be the solution for orchestras this size. You could cut out nearly all of management overhead, employ somewhere between 65-75 full time orchestral musicians. Split this number up into committees that handle different aspects of the orchestra’s affairs (surely some within this group will have some business experience). Also, it would be better because you could be more flexible with your artistic programs (i.e., we’ve come up short the past few seasons with revenue, I have an idea of adding education concert series B in public schools because there are grants that will pay for that.) Also, it wouldn’t as big of a problem maintaining this flexibility because the members of the group are acting collectively on behalf of themselves, period. There is no ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ mentaility because you are working purely for your colleague’s artistic AND economic benefit.

    Drew, what do you think about the viability of an orchestra co-op business model?

    • Brian,

      Although it serves a useful purpose in a few narrowly defined circumstances, I’m not a fan of the sort of governance model as you’ve described it.

      TP is on the ball here with his/her reply but in the end, this is a topic that has a very long conversation attached to it but one of the key failings is that without big money donors on the board, the organization won’t amount to much and certainly won’t rise to the level of paying a living wage. And attracting board members with that capacity to an institution where the governing body legally entrusted with making strategic decisions is next to impossible.

      Instead, there’s nothing wrong with the model as it currently exists; it simply requires people of good conscious, skill, and dedication to maintain the necessary work related to building a healthy, respectful relationship.

  5. I definitely understand TP’s concern, but I would just ask: Why can’t members of the orchestra learn this skill of courting big donors? It’s obviously easier said than done, but I feel that orchestra members who delve into learning the business side beyond what we think possible today, could in turn produce a long-lasting sustainable model. If there are anywhere from 10-20 members of a 75 member orchestra taking on these managing duties, they can replace their outgoing committee members with other members who have been easing themselves into taking on that responsibility. I will say that I’m very ignorant myself in understanding what every member of management actually does with half of their work day

    • If it were as straightforward as what you suggested then it wouldn’t be an issue, as you suggest. But the issue here deals more with governance and control. Instead, focusing efforts on using the existing governance model by fostering a healthier relationship built on earned, mutual respect is a much better pursuit.

      As far as what managers actually do all day, there is no way you can replace those efforts by musicians doing the same work on a part time basis. These are largely very difficult jobs and not something that can be easily replaced.

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