Jacksonville Symphony Declares Impasse, Imposes Contract

According to an article by Charlie Patton in the 9/18/2012 edition of the Florida Times-Union, the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra’s (JSO) board has declared an impasse and will impose the terms of its most recent offer. That offer includes a 20% reduction in base compensation, four less weeks in the season, and no less than 45 percent cuts in health care benefits (the figure for the latter increases via family coverage). It is unknown if any work rule changes are being imposed.

The orchestra’s season opener is scheduled for September 28th and although the board has indicated they will not lock the musicians out, they will impose their last contract offer, which forces musicians into a position on whether or not to strike. To that end, there has been no word from musicians if they plan to strike although they did release a letter dated 9/14/2012 addressed to the JSO board of directors.

The letter asserts that the board’s negotiating team has yet to amend any economic conditions in their offer over the duration of negotiations. The musicians also express dismay over the joint stakeholder strategic planning process put into motion following their last contentious negotiation that was presented as a solution for preventing a similar scenario in the future.

Lastly, the letter accuses the “executive staff,” which must undoubtedly include JSO executive director Stacy Ridenour, of acting duplicitously and using season planning as future negotiation leverage.

While ostensibly bargaining in good faith, the executive staff clearly planned for this confrontation more than a year before negotiations began, unilaterally changing the season start, among other things, apparently believing this would intimidate musicians yet pass unnoticed by the public and other interested parties, such as you. And although a National Labor Relations Board charge of bad faith bargaining would certainly be appropriate, we want you to know that we have withheld filing because we don’t think legal action against the JSA is how to solve the problem of arriving at a fair contract, which in the end must be worked out among ourselves – the people who most care about the quality and future of Jacksonville’s Orchestra.

Currently, the JSO is still selling tickets for opening concerts and their website asks ticket buyer to be patient when calling in as the box office is “receiving a high volume of calls.” there is no information about potential refunds, exchanges, or credits.

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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13 thoughts on “Jacksonville Symphony Declares Impasse, Imposes Contract”

  1. The Times Union editorial board had it right in a recent editorial: the best symphony in Florida is right here in Jacksonville. (http://jacksonville.com/opinion/editorials/2012-08-15/story/floridas-best-symphony-jacksonville) So I was deeply disappointed to see that symphony contract negotiations are heading toward a redux of the situation 5 years ago. While the symphony has made numerous steps to improve finances and bridge the divide created by the lock-out then, it appears the symphony board may be willing to travel that rocky road again by declaring an impasse and imposing draconian contract provisions on the musicians. That is a tragedy for the best symphony in Florida.

    While the symphony board’s negotiating committee has chosen to focus on the negative by positing that Jacksonville is only a $7 million town and pointing out other orchestras with troubles, I will tell you neither has to be the situation in Jacksonville. For example, while not meeting their ultimate goal of funding an additional concert each year for 5 years to replace wages lost by the musicians as a result of the 2008 bargaining agreement, the Friends of the Jacksonville Symphony, a group I was a member of, were able to find sufficient funding to pay the symphony musicians for an additional concert for 2 of the past 5 years. This was done with a minimal amount of effort by the Friends’ leadership group of a few local attorneys. Imagine what could have been accomplished if Friends had been armed with the resources that the symphony has at its disposal. Yet, too often, those very same resources are squandered by the symphony.

    To be sure, the symphony has taken very significant steps to develop a strategic plan as well as improve its community outreach through its education program. However, it has done very little in the way of audience development or social media unlike other orchestras, such as the Nashville Symphony. Without these same efforts, it’s extremely difficult to sustain a strong relationship with the community that is ever more reliant on online/electronic communications. The situation has not been helped by a music director that seemed disconnected from the community at large. In addition, the lack of the wildly popular Symphony Showhouse this past year resulted in yet another bridge with the community being lost. To add insult to injury, the online ticketing system was replaced the week before single ticket sales were to take place. That new system still wasn’t working until this week.

    I point out all of this not to criticize the symphony board and administration, but instead to demonstrate that there are so many things that could be – and should be – done better. While it is too late to make improvements in these areas for this current contract negotiation, the symphony musicians have proposed at least 5 different offers to the board’s negotiating committee to address the current shortfalls without draconian cuts to the musicians’ salaries and benefits. Until the symphony corrects the internal flaws it has in its processes and community outreach, it would be unfair to impose further cuts to musicians who have not only held up their end of the bargain but offered to bridge the divide time after time – only to be rebuffed.

    If indeed city leaders want to take Jacksonville to the next level as they often talk about, a symphony orchestra with fairly compensated, world-class musicians is one of the keys to success.

    Dana Brown, a friend of the Jacksonville Symphony

  2. Drew,
    I have heard of instances where the managements and/or boards of orchestras refused to do fund-raising and have even refused donations in order to keep their orchestra’s financial situation in bad straits in an attempt to gain concessions from the musicians. A discussion on this topic from you and other readers might shed a lot of light on the current situations. No names, of course, but the idea of the caretakers of the organizations sabotaging their own groups in order to eliminate extra work for themselves is a troubling, and possibly real, one and might provide for interesting research.

    • Hi Randall, thanks for the suggestion but I think the way you’ve phrased it pretty much sums up the entire discussion. Yes, there have been times where fundraising efforts are postponed or altered so as to impact a master agreement renewal. Whether or not it would shed any light on any of the current labor disputes is a bit of a stretch because the reasons, process, and a host of other unique and dynamic variables related to each instance is really best served by individual analysis rather than broader generalizations.

      In short, the old adage about “if you look hard enough, you’ll find whatever you’re looking for” is something to be taken to heart here. However, if there were ever verification that something like that was going on at any of the orchestras currently engaged in labor disputes, it would likely be enormously useful to the field as a whole to examine it in detail, even if it meant uncovering details that weren’t always pretty.

      On a related topic, I did publish a pair of articles about when performing arts organizations exaggerate financial distress for ulterior motives and you might find those useful: https://adaptistration.com/blog/2012/08/22/imaginary-fiscal-distress-syndrome/ and https://adaptistration.com/blog/2012/01/19/do-some-orchestras-exaggerate-their-financial-position-for-negotiation-leverage/

  3. Maybe orchestras will follow in the footsteps of the manufacturers which first shrink the packaging then sacrifice quality until the discriminating buyer finds a good quality product to be bought directly from the producer. The number of staff at the Atlanta Symphony is astounding. How many of them have lost their healthcare and are locked out of the building? Musicians were hired on the basis of their playing, not their ability to market and administrate. Why are they being punished and portrayed as the problem when they are simply the high quality product being forced into the smaller package? Musicians have held up their end of the bargain by continuously putting forth great concerts while being the target of vicious attacks by boards and managements. Rather than blaming the product, maybe it’s time for people who believe in said product to administer orchestras.

    • I’ve mentioned this a number of times in comment threads over the past few months but it is worth repeating: beating up on staffers, meaning the non-executive employees who have next to zero influence over strategic decisions, is just about one of the most short-sided endeavors one can adopt during an orchestral labor dispute.

      Demonizing rank and file staffers for decisions made by executives is, at best, misplaced and at worst, uncalled for. I strongly recommend that all concerned parties keep in mind that generalizations and universal association is rarely the way to go.

  4. Drew,

    Thanks so much. It would be nice to think that everyone in a organization was working as hard to improve the product as the violins in Rosenkavalier or the trumpet in Petrouchka, but that might be wishful thinking. Perhaps in music, as in sports, there are those that strive to be the best and those that attempt to get by with as little product as possible.

    • …or the new media manager in marketing or director of individual gifts or executive assistants or comptrollers in the finance, etc.

      I simply can’t stress enough how much worse a labor dispute becomes when musicians and their supporters make the same mistakes of applying universal association to all administrators. It’s crucial to remember that the staffers are not the board, nor are they executives.

  5. As much as we musicians like to adopt the behavior and rhetoric of some of our more traditional labor bretheren, more often than not our ‘management’ (aka Staff) is not the enemy. We actually have more in common than not.

    People who work marketing, operations, accounting etc can earn a lot more for a similar position in the for profit sector. Many seek jobs with an orchestra for the love of music, the art form or pure altruism. They are often as maltreated and underpaid by bad boards as are musicians. Yes, sometimes there are examples of staff who act badly or don’t pull their weight, however if we are honest with ourselves there are musicians who act poorly or are slackers as well. Painting with a broad brush should be avoided by all sides.

    Contract disputes don’t last forever and when it’s all over, we all have to go back to work together. Focus on the real issues and problems, long and short term. Avoid generalities and internal ‘sniping’. As frustrating as it may be to see non-senior staff ‘sitting pretty’ while we’re locked-out, they are not the ‘bad guy’ and quite often sympathize with the musicians during disputes and side with us during ‘better times’ to move a Board in the right direction. Don’t hurt this valuble potential future alliance in a moment of frustration or anger.

  6. I worked through the collapse of the SSO (Savannah Symphony) as a very young and new staff member. We were vilified in the press by musician representatives. Little did they care to acknowledge, that the staff was reduced to 8 people and none but the ED received any compensation for 12 weeks of work. I did, however, eat a lovely slice of cheese pizza when we were told it was shut effective immediately. I was friends with some of the same people who turned against me and who I’d defended in meetings not days prior.

    I was quite naive then, but one thing I did learn – smearing either side doesn’t make the other wholly blameless and upstanding. It’s a stubborn reluctance, bordering on defiance, that disables our normal sensibility. We (mgmt AND musicians) are so desperate to prove that the other is the wrongful party and should eat the bigger slice of crow pie. In the process, we disgust and repel the very people (donors, subscribers, single tickets, future attendees, community) our plaintive cases are meant to attract.

    You can’t come out smelling like daisies. And in the end, you cripple yourselves worse than when you began. It’s called fiscal and artistic integrity. You cannot sacrifice one for the other. It’s ugly, bitter, fraught with ego and pride. However, every single person has to decide that survival is more important and find a resting ground where that can be achieved. So, retreat. Go line item to line item. Concert to concert. Find the location where you won’t sustain more losses, then formulate a plan that is achievable.

    It’s what we’re doing in Savannah now. Four seasons in and we’ve hit a nice stride. AND the musicians, the staff (all 2 of us), the volunteers, the chorus and the community all have a stake in the success.

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