Palm Beach Symphony Is Back In The News Again

They say there’s no such thing as bad press but the Palm Beach Symphony (PBS) might be testing that adage in the wake of a 12/2/2012 article in the Palm Beach Daily News by Jan Sjostrom that reports the orchestra is once again at the center of a labor controversy. The last time the PBS found itself in the hot seat was toward the end of the 2011-12 season when a proposed Juilliard residency would have displaced most of the orchestra’s musicians.

The recent controversy once again focuses on employment practices with the American Federation of Musicians Local 655 alleging that the orchestra has dismissed no less than 75 percent of the musicians without just cause.

“These musicians have dedicated their time, talents and efforts for many years to building the symphony, despite its offering much less than full-time work or the benefits of secure working conditions. The decision to replace nearly the entire roster of musicians is further mystifying in light of the musicians’ loyalty to the organization and consistent praise in the press.”

As a result, Local 655 has called on supporters to “to demand an explanation from the Palm Beach Symphony management and board, and to boycott the symphony until this obvious wrong is rectified.”

Sjostrom’s article reports that the POB’s music director and musician contractor are being accused of playing politics.

The union accuses Ramon Tebar, who is music director of the symphony and Florida Grand Opera, of replacing the majority of the symphony’s orchestra with the opera’s musicians, without telling the musicians he was dissatisfied with their performance or giving them a chance to improve.

The symphony does not have a collective bargaining agreement with its musicians, who are freelancers employed by Alfredo Oliva, an outside contractor who also contracts players for Florida Grand Opera.

The import piece of info in that excerpt is its reference to the lack of a collective bargaining agreement. Currently, the PBS maintains an annual operating budget below $1 million which exempts it from having to enter into a collective bargaining agreement with musician employees regardless of whether or not those employees qualify under typical NLRA requirements for forming a bargaining unit.

If the PBS did employ its musicians under the terms of a typical collective bargaining agreement used by per service professional orchestras, it would likely contain provisions prohibiting the employer from summarily terminating employment for artistic reasons without following a procedure outlined in the master agreement. And although the terms of these provisions are far from uniform, they typically require the employer to provide notice to the employee citing specific reasons and providing some method for rectifying said artistic transgressions before a final decision is rendered.

According to the article, the PBS’s executive director, Michael Finn, doesn’t appear to keep very close track of practices or procedures with regard to musician hiring.

Michael Finn, the symphony’s executive director, said he didn’t know if auditions had been held, because hiring musicians is Oliva’s job. “How he does his business, I don’t know,” he said.

Back in May, 2012, the Palm Beach Daily News reported that many of the orchestra musicians feared that Tebar would replace them with musicians from another ensemble and efforts at that time to undercut their employment were the first step in that goal. Jump ahead several months and that very well may be what transpires.

If nothing else, it appears that just because the round of labor tension was concluded back in May, 2012 that didn’t mean the ill-will was put to an end.

Postscript: you can catch up on the previous dispute by visiting Adaptistration’s Palm Beach Symphony article index.

UPDATE (12/4/2012 5:00pm CT): PBS Issues Statement Purporting Former Musicians No Longer Good Enough

In response to today’s post, the PBS’ public relations provider provided the following statement:

The Palm Beach Symphony believes the comments made by SFMA Local 655 are inaccurate and misleading. Any and all actions we have taken were proper, and designed solely to improve the quality of the Symphony. We continue to have a substantial number of union members as part of our orchestra, and look forward to continuing to provide our patrons and guests the finest orchestral music in South Florida for years to come.

Julie Mullen, The Buzz Agency, spokesperson on behalf of the Palm Beach Symphony

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the official reply may increase tensions by not only challenging union statements (not the least bit unusual) but openly purporting that former musicians are artistically unfit to be considered for future engagements with the ensemble (very unusual). Still unknown are details about the current musician selection process or if any sort of artistic review procedures were considered in advance of hiring decisions.

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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