Richmond Stakeholders Dig In

It seems the labor relationship between the Richmond Symphony Orchestra (RSO) board and musicians has, perhaps unsurprisingly, taken a downward turn following a board letter from 1/28/2012 that articulated their role in crafting and advancing proposed legislation that would bar orchestra musicians (including those in the RSO) from collecting unemployment during non-employed weeks throughout the season.

In response to the 1/28/2012 message, the RSO Musicians delivered a letter addressed to their full board which articulated a considerable amount of displeasure with not only the board’s decision to craft the unemployment legislation but how the situation was handled.

Pot? Kettle?

Richmond Stakeholders Dig InIn particular, the musicians singled out the board’s desire that this matter would not lead to “a public war of words” by pointing out that the only public statements on the subject came from RSO executive director, David Fisk, when speaking on the record with a reporter from the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Moreover, as a representative example of their continued good faith, the musicians contend that they refrained from public statements “…even last year when our management broke the law by breaking our contract.”

As a result, the musicians finished their letter expressing a sense of betrayal at being taken advantage of but came short of making any specific requests other than a hope that the board would adopt an approach founded on “integrity, trust, transparency, mutual respect, [and] empathy” when moving forward.

[sws_toggle1 title=”Click to read the complete RSO Musician letter.”]

From: [name removed] <[address removed]@[address removed].com>
To: [address removed]@[address removed].org
Sent: Sunday, January 29, 2012 1:25 PM
Subject: Please forward to Board Members

Dear Board Members of the Richmond Symphony,

We cannot begin to express how upsetting this past week has been. The reasons are numerous. A bill was introduced singling out our very profession, seeking to eliminate our right to unemployment benefits. For many, losing this benefit is a very real threat to personal economic survival.  Many musicians earn less than a living wage, and unemployment benefits veritably help them make ends meet.

What’s profoundly more disturbing is that our own management and board created this.  We could not feel more undermined and devalued.  This is indeed a personal hit directed at us, all while displacing responsibility to the state.  This money-saving tactic impacts not only us, but musicians all across the commonwealth not even employed by the RSO.

We note from John Braymer’s letter the warning that you do not “want to have a public war of words, which can only damage relationships further”. We must note back to you – we have NOT engaged in any public war of words. The only publicity is directly from David Fisk to a reporter, highlighting the financial burden.  Needless to say, we are now perceived by the public as undeserving people who have been gaming the system to our own financial gain. In fact, we, like all workers, are entitled to this benefit in the weeks that there is precisely a “Lack of work”.

No, we have not partaken in any public war of words – even last year when our management broke the law by breaking our contract.  We had good reason to alert the media and call them out.  But we knew that any negative publicity would be a bad reflection on the RSO.  It’s unfortunate that David Fisk did not extend that courtesy or wherewithal when talking to the press.

Our Core Values unite us as a Symphony family:

In Harmony of Purpose – Integrity, Trust, Transparency, Mutual Respect, Empathy

After all the time in Mellon workshops working on cooperation, and our own Strategic Plan as just quoted, the events of this past week are, quite frankly, despicable. We cannot help but feel thrown under the bus by our own organization.

We’re well aware that you are entrusted to keep the RSO funded and balance the budget.  We know that finances are tight.  We see the cutting and trimming of the very flagship series that defines the organization. We wish to encourage you to look at the successes out there, because there are many thriving orchestras around the country!  We hope to follow their example, not continually cut artistic output, following a path that has proven to lead to failure.

We value the board and the work that you do, and hope that in the future we are able to work through our issues internally. We respect your dedication and devotion to the RSO, and appreciate that the symphony couldn’t operate without your leadership.  We hope that you, too, recognize that the symphony doesn’t exist without musicians.

The Musicians of the Richmond Symphony
via the Musician Committees


cc:  RSO Musicians
RSO Musicians website

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Not So Fast

Two days later, Braymer responded with an email message that raises the stakes by levying accusations against the musicians which were similar to those from their letter. In particular, Baymer describes a sentiment of frustration among the board, as it relates to their relationship with the musicians, as purposely self-defeating.

[sws_toggle1 title=”Click to read the complete RSO Board response.”]

Date: Tue, 31 Jan 2012 16:50:12 -0500
From: [address removed]@[address removed].org
To: [address removed]@ [address removed].com
CC: [address removed]@[address removed].com

Dear Stacy:

Thank you for your note. I understand your perspective on the situation; believe me that we would not have raised this issue with the General Assembly if the seriousness of the financial situation did not warrant it. The Board needs to review every area of expense, both inside and outside its control, in order to keep the organization afloat. Our goal is to preserve your jobs, first and foremost, by ensuring the Symphony’s continuing viability.

You are frustrated and disappointed with Board and management; and we too have had our fair share of frustration and disappointment with the musicians in the last few years, by your seeming reluctance to work with us in a timely manner, through the Board Committee structure and in union negotiations. It is unfair to blame management because it took until March 2011 to reach agreement on the modification to the Master Agreement that was formally requested in July 2010 and necessitated by our financial situation. We had no desire to breach the contract; it was forced upon us by the needless protraction of discussions over nine months!

I also want to make a note in response to your comments about the Symphony’s management. David Fisk works under the Board’s direction as does Steven Smith. Both David and Steven find themselves in very difficult positions at present, yet both care deeply about the Symphony and are doing their utmost to lift the organization through these very challenging times. All of us are doing it with the interests of the orchestra as a whole at heart.

While I welcome and encourage dialogue between musicians and the Board, I sense that continuing it by email is not going to satisfy either group sufficiently. Let me make some suggestions to you. As I have assured members of your Negotiating Committee on several occasions, I respect the Union’s role as a partner and the Board has no intention of seeking to go around it; we have now begun contract negotiations and we will observe the formal process involved. The Board will not conduct discussions with the musicians about financial issues except through the negotiating process.

Yet that does not preclude us from having a broader dialogue about Board-musician-management relations, about our shared goals and about the internal atmosphere in which we want to work together. So let me propose the following:

  1. In the modification agreement of last March, both parties committed to having an organizational meeting approximately twice a year, to review progress in our various fundraising initiatives; we have not done that and should do so.
  2. I also propose a meeting of the leadership of the musicians’ committees with David, Steven and myself, to agree how we communicate and to seek to preserve organizational relationships through the next six months and beyond.
  3. I also urge you once again to send two representatives to the Board’s Committee meetings, as you committed to do, covering Finance, Advancement and Capitalization, as true participants not merely as silent observers. We have appreciated [musician name removed] attendance at the Finance Committee and at one Capitalization meeting, but the musicians will be better informed as a group and a better partner in our endeavors when you send representatives who are authentically engaged in working with us on a consistent and timely basis, asking questions, joining in the discussions, and helping identify new opportunities.

By the end of February, we shall know the fate of the unemployment measure. Whether it fails or passes, there will be consequences, and we must collectively find a way forward, through the remainder of the negotiating process. While I understand the concern of the musicians whom this one bill may affect, the overall financial realities with which we are wrestling are much larger and more complex than this single measure alone. That is the larger challenge we need to face together. I will look forward to your response to the suggested meetings above that will provide the background for collaborative problem-solving that I think we all desire.


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What’s worth noting is the final paragraph where Braymer indicates that the ensuing negotiations may be influenced by the outcome of the proposed unemployment legislation. Implying that the board may adopt a considerably tougher negotiation position if the contentious unemployment legislation fails while simultaneously requesting a framework for “collaborative problem-solving” outside the bargaining process is something that, at best, might be considered a high risk approach and at worst, an empty gesture.


In its current form, it appears that this labor dispute is defined by offenses (either real and/or perceived) while both sides await reconciliatory action from the other. It also seems that there is little hope for negotiations to progress very far over the course of the next month until the fate of the proposed unemployment legislature is finalized.

So what do you think as an outside observer; based on the exchange of communication to-date, is there reason to believe that the current negotiations could have started off on a better foot? Do you think there are any lessons to be learned at this juncture?

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 “Richmond Stakeholders Dig In”

  1. By unilaterally – and without warning to the other side – enlisting a third party (i.e., a state legislator) to do some proxy negotiating, the Board was – at the very least – insensitive to the nuances of collective bargaining. They were simply trying to get a head start on the financial package they would like to end up with. This tactic was cowardly, and has been quite demoralizing to the players.

    The “big picture” in all this, though, is the problem of the makeup and inner dynamics of boards of directors of arts institutions and of not-for-profit organizations in general.
    The reality is that, after hiring a chief executive, boards are often content to let major policy decisions be made by that person, perhaps after consultation with the board chairman (who may or may not give much thought to the matter at hand). The remaining board members, who have been chosen because of their financial contributions or standing in the community, remain outside the decision-making process. In the present case, it’s hard to imagine that there wouldn’t have been some thoughtful person on the board who could have pointed out the potential downside to the Loupassi tactic.

    So now, as we see, both sides have “dug in.” The management and (nominally) the board feel righteous, while the players feel betrayed. What a sad situation!

  2. First of all, the RSO Board and Management should have gotten their economics and Negotiation 101 right. From the excerpt of the newspaper article you posted here:

    “The Richmond Symphony pays its unemployment insurance out of pocket to the tune of about $70,000 a year, he said. But the bulk of the Virginia Symphony’s claims go directly through the state’s system, funded with taxpayer dollars.”

    Unless I’m reading that wrong, or unless the journalist got it wrong, which is possible, the RSO pays $70K per year, but the musicians get more than that in benefits. In other words, the tax payers are subsidizing the fact that the RSO is a 38 week orchestra, instead of a 52 week orchestra. Offloading a portion of employee compensation to taxpayers is a good thing for the RSO management, a pretty sweet deal for the musicians AND the administration, and now they’re trying to end it! I’m having trouble swallowing my scorn, here, really.

    Even if the comparison to teachers is appropriate (and that can be debated–I don’t know how much Richmond teachers are paid, but it is quite possibly more than $33-44K per year), that doesn’t change the fact that it is an economically foolish move to reduce your costs $5 by reducing your employees’ wages $10. They have asked the Virginia legislature to remove a subsidy to their own employees.

    As counter-intuitive as it may sound, a better way to reduce costs by $70K would have actually been to cut total orchestra compensation by $70K. It might be harder to negotiate such a cut than to lobby for legislation, maybe, but the musicians would be better off than if this legislative change goes forward.

    From a negotiations perspective, the administration has tried to get the musicians to give up something that has more value to the musicians than it has to the administration. Dumb, dumb, dumb. Except they are going around the musicians, and trying to change the environment of the negotiations instead. Do they really now expect the musicians NOT to ask for higher pay to offset any lost unemployment compensation?

    Another thing, and I assume this is the fault of the orchestra… The fact that no discussion of financial issues can happen outside of the negotiations process means that this information will NEVER be discussed objectively and rationally. It’s only going to be discussed in an adversarial situation. Good luck with that.

  3. It is likely that this bill will be passed in the flurry of social “legislation” going on in Richmond right now. The larger picture was summarized in today’s WaPost.* I don’t know what David Fisk’s political leanings are, but, being the ED of the orchestra serving Virginia’s capital city gives him access to a lot of agenda-driven politicos that descend on the town every legislative session. The timing of Fisk’s contact of Republican Loupassi was perfect since the Va Republicans had just taken over control of both houses for only the second time since the Civil War. It doesn’t take a genius to look at what’s been happening in states like Kansas, Indiana and Wisconsin and put that together with what might be possible in Virginia. It should be no surprise then (assuming the contact you revealed) that when Fisk suggested to Loupassi that he might look into the propriety of unemployment compensation for RSO musicians that Loupassi would be on it like a duck on a Junebug.

    Drew, I appreciate that you pointed out to readers that this is specifically about the RSO which should not be confused with the Virginia Symphony Orchestra. But the fallout here may be larger than anyone can see right now. For example, just staying within Virginia, there are other orchestras that might feel the heat. Beside the RSO & VSO, there may be potential problems for some musicians playing in the Arlington, Alexandria and Fairfax orchestras as well as the semi-permanent vocal company in Virginia Opera. And then outside the state there are many other orchestras (and theaters & opera companies) whose EDs & boards might get the same idea to look at their own states’ laws to see if there are any “cost reductions” their legislators might help them out with by a few tweaks/interpretations in the laws.

    I don’t want to play the role of Chicken Little, but the thing about this that really worries me is that this is the first time I know of an orchestra’s management/board engaging in an active role to affect/initiate legislation & for me there is a larger issue here.

    My MAIN question, given all of this, is:

    If a 501(c)(3) explicitly or implicitly lobbies to change a law to favor the 501(c)(3), which side of the line forbidding political activity by a tax-exempt organization does that activity fall on??? It might be good to draw this discussion out into the open and get some answers before other EDs & BoDs start to drool.


  4. For the immediate discussion (RSO) it would be instructive to know how the orchestra participates in the Virginia UI program. According to the Employers Handbook pages 2-3,

    the employers has two options. The first is to pay on a sliding scale (if I read it correctly) of anywhere between 1.56% and 7.66%, based on the magnitude of claims which have been made (i.e., “experience-based”). The second – the “reimbursement method,” which is available only to not-for-profit 501(c)(3) corporations – allows an employer to reimburse the state dollar-for-dollar any claims made by its employees.

    The bottom line is that – either way – it is doubtful that many taxpayer dollars (perhaps none) are involved in paying unemployment benefits, with the possible exception of paying for the costs for administering the program.

    Is there someone out there who can give us a good summary about how UI works? Does it vary much from state to state?

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