Only Three Options In Atlanta?

The 8/15/2012 edition of the Atlanta Journal Constitution published an article by Howard Pousner that reports on the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) labor negotiations. Of particular interest is a quote from ASO president Stanley Romanstein who denied threatening musicians with a lockout and instead outlined three possible scenarios if both sides fail to reach an agreement by the contract’s expiration date.


“Three scenarios could happen: a newly ratified contract, a musician strike, or an expired contract.”

Those are certainly options, but they are part of a much larger series of potential outcomes that have been employed for decades by professional orchestras of all budget size.

Partial Agreement

If both parties are able to reach agreement on the majority of critical items, it isn’t unheard of to leave other issues such as health care benefits and pensions to ongoing negotiations. In these instances, conditions for continued bargaining are spelled out in a side letter to the newly signed collective bargaining agreement and the subsequent resolutions, once ratified by both parties, will be incorporated into the master agreement.

Play and Talk

In this scenario, both sides agree to continue with scheduled events while negotiations ensue. Variables include written agreements stipulating the play and talk conditions such as whether or not the terms of the previous agreement continue unaltered until a new agreement is reached and/or imposing a new bargaining deadline.

Sometimes, both sides will agree to play and talk without any written agreement. Regardless of which version is utilized, this option is used most frequently as it offers a pressure release for everyone involved although it does not guarantee any particular outcome.

Work Stoppage

This option comes in two varieties; when musicians institute a work stoppage it is called a strike and when it is initiated by management it is called a lockout. It isn’t unusual for both sides to claim the other has initiated the work stoppage but the ultimate definition can be crucial when determining how the conflict is resolved. If the source of the work stoppage is indeed questioned, the matter is typically resolved by state and/or Federal authorities.

Regardless, under this option all scheduled events and activity will cease although both sides have been known to conduct ancillary concert action. For example, musicians can put on their own concerts and the association can turn into something of a presenter by bringing in performing arts acts, although these rarely include a full orchestra. It is most unusual to see an employer attempt to hire replacement musicians to carry on scheduled concert events.

Imposing A Contract

In this option, management will impose the terms of their last, best, and final offer (or a variation thereof). The claim here from management is that they are not initiating a lockout and musicians must report for contracted service duties, but under the terms of the imposed agreement.

This is arguably the most passive-aggressive option as it requires the musicians to either accept the offer or initiate a work stoppage by going on strike. However, other options include legal action that requires a judge to step in render a decision on whether or not an employer can enforce the terms of a contract.

Ultimately, imposing a contract is a high-risk option that carries a number of variables that are beyond control of either side. Consequently, its volatile nature makes this a dangerous option as outcomes are not dissimilar from the “solution of mass destruction” nature inherent with work stoppages.

I contacted the ASO to inquire whether or not they would consider options beyond those identified by Romanstein in the AJC article and at the time this article was published they have yet to provide a response.

Similarly, I asked Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Players Association (ASOPA) and ASO principal trombone, Colin Williams, if the musicians are willing to engage in a Play and Talk scenario and if so, under what terms. Similarly, if the ASO attempts to impose a contract, how will the musicians respond? At the time this article was published, he has yet to respond. UPDATE, 9:25am CT; ASOPA RESPONSE:

The person to whom Stanley Romanstein delegated the negotiations, Don Fox, wrote the following:

“I remind you that unless an agreement is reached by midnight, August 25th, we have no authority to continue income for Musicians, either pay or benefits, beyond that date. All of us sincerely want to conclude negotiations with a mutually acceptable contract that we reach by good faith bargaining.”

Unlike ASO management, the musicians have made no threats of any kind. In open discussions of the threat of a lockout, management has not shrunk from the term at any time.

Of course, the musicians would play and talk under the expiring CBA, and to do so would preserve youth orchestra and TDP activities, in addition to planned ASO auditions in September. But ASO management is apparently entirely unconcerned about preserving these.

We have good communication and made a major new proposal on Wednesday. We are not at impasse, despite any characterizations to the contrary.

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 “Only Three Options In Atlanta?”

    • If things continue down this path, I suspect that relationship will begin to work its way to the forefront. For example, questions regarding the differences in duties, responsibilities, and authority between the ASO board and Woodruff board will likely become key points to examine.

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