Louisville Musicians Reject Arbitration Then Miss An Opportunity

On Thursday, 2/16/2012 the Louisville Orchestra (LO) Musicians formally rejected an offer from management to enter binding arbitration. This comes as no real surprise in that the offer had a number of provisos tailored to ensure that any decision would conform to financial and operational parameters contained in their previous proposals, all of which have been previously rejected by LO musicians.

Adaptistration People 136Moreover, the lack of any input on selecting the pool of arbitrator candidates made the offer more of an empty gesture than a shared risk effort to end the work stoppage. But what’s particularly interesting at this point is what the musicians decided to do next.

In a coordinated effort with other local unions, the musicians, represented by the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), launched a PR and public demonstration campaign to announce the their response to arbitration and to protest outside of Kentucky Opera (KO) performances of The Merry Widow.

For those not up to speed on events, the KO is tangentially connected to the LO labor dispute in that the opera traditionally contracts the LO to provide live music for its productions. Excluding the KO’s initial production this season, the KO and LO musicians have been unable to reach terms independent of the original LO contract; as a result, the KO has implemented a series of replacement measures including a multi piano accompaniment and as of last week, a replacement orchestra consisting of a mix of amateur and professional musicians for The Merry Widow performances.

What’s The Definition of Insanity?*

What’s interesting here is the PR message from the musicians and supporters in the wake of rejecting the arbitration offer has been to propose a course of action that has ostensibly been tried already and failed. In particular, they are endorsing a course of action recommended in a report written by Henry Fogel that recommended the Mayor facilitate “…bringing in an industry professional to lead a blue ribbon committee that can work collaboratively to establish…the foundation for a fair settlement.”

In response to the proposal, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer released a statement (subsequently published in the 2/16/2012 edition of the Louisville Courier-Journal) alluding to the fact that his office tried that and it didn’t produce a resolution. Instead, he favored a binding course of action that was mutually agreeable to both parties.

“Until both sides can agree to a course of action that is binding on both of them, any attempt to further study the issue seems futile. I am happy to offer any assistance from my office once the parties come to a binding agreement on a process … for moving to resolution. I urge both parties to take a fresh look at the impasse and resolve it for the good of our community.”

Moreover, LO CEO Robert Birman pointed out the same thing to the Courier-Journal’s Elizabeth Kramer in an article published on 2/13/2012. He cited efforts by the Mayor’s office that resulted in bringing in consultant Ralph Craviso, a long-time colleague of Fogel, to study the situation and mediate a settlement.

Orchestra CEO Robert Birman said Monday that he has no comment on the unions’ request, except to say that Fischer’s office participated in the negotiation process last fall, when it brokered the hiring of labor relations expert Ralph Craviso with money from an anonymous donor. Those negotiations failed.

So What’s Next?

The long and short of it is both Fisher and Birman are correct; pursuing another course of action that relies on continued study and additional consultants won’t resolve the conflict. At the same time, empty gesture offers for binding arbitration are only going to agitate an already bitter situation.

Furthermore, musicians and their supporters missed an influential opportunity to push the ordeal toward a better direction vis-a-vis their latest PR and public demonstration efforts and instead decided to endorse a course of action that has already failed to resolve the conflict.

At this point, the best option for resolving the dispute is something close to what Mayor Fischer suggested; specifically, that both parties enter into mutually agreeable binding arbitration where both sides have an equal input on terms and selecting the arbitrator(s).

Without that, both sides (not to mention the greater Louisville public) can expect continued frustration over expecting different results from doing the same things over and over.

*Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. ~ Albert Einstein

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 Musicians Reject Arbitration Then Miss An Opportunity

  1. Ok I’ll bite. I kept waiting for someone else to comment as several people who regularly read this blog expressed the same question I had. What is the “missed opportunity” to which you refer. I recognize that you think pressuring the Mayor and Fund for the Arts with the Vogel report is not going to move things along, but are you implying that the players might have instead tried to push for arbitration, but arbitration with all the preconditions removed. While that might seem reasonable I wonder why anyone would think that the LOI would agree to that when they have been so intransigent in every other way.
    Or you were suggesting the KOA situation might have been handled differently?

  2. Hi Ray, you’re decidedly on the right track with what I was suggesting vis-a-vis using the PR moment to push for binding arbitration under mutually agreeable terms (not to mention shared risk and shared trust). But the intransigence you point out is ultimately not only the key but the political reality in this situation. Research, reports, etc. aren’t likely to have much, if any, effect on stakeholders when they are so entrenched.

    Likewise, looking for help from the Mayor in all this is unlikely to have much impact since there are no carrots to inspire movement from entrenched positions; or to perhaps be more precise, if there were, they would have certainly been used by now.

    From the board’s perspective, they’ve been granted a certain degree of moral authority by way of the bankruptcy ruling so why should they listen to someone else’s opinion? From the musician’s standpoint, the bankruptcy ruling was flawed so they believe additional study might produce better answers. Both sides feel they are “right” when that basic ideal no longer applies to the dispute.

    Consequently, the best way to shake out of this cycle is to enter into binding arbitration ([er conditions above). It also provides the one element missing from events so far in that it offers a way out for any stakeholder that is uncomfortable with the ruling but doesn’t tear the organization apart by so much negative publicity.

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