These Aren’t The Droids You’re Looking For…

There’s a terrific article by Janos Gereben in the 3/25/2013 edition of the San Francisco Classical Voice that begins to push past much of the talking point fluff coming from the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) and its musicians. In short, there’s plenty of ambiguous spin and attempted caginess to go around; all of which only makes the entire labor debacle look that much worse. But the part which should catch your attention is toward the end when the focus turns to proposed work rule changes.

these aren't the droids you're looking forRegular readers already know how much of an impact work rules changes can have on the overall collective bargaining agreement thanks to the series of articles earlier this season which examined several segments from the Minnesota Orchestra Redline Agreement. Consequently, confirming the details behind the alleged work rule changes could shed a considerable deal of light on the otherwise murky issues surrounding the SFS labor dispute.

Unfortunately, Gereben apparently ran into a brick wall while trying to find out if there’s any fire at the source of the work rule smoke.

The question of “work rule changes” remains a mystery as the union doesn’t specify them, and management claims to have no information about what they may be.

In order to help sort through all of this I contacted the respective representatives for the SFS and the musicians; SFS Director of Communications, Oliver Theil, and musician media consultant, Nathan Ballard.

I asked both individuals the same question based on the excerpt from Gereben’s article; specifically, whether or not the SFS has included any work rule changes in either the three year or the most recent two year proposal; and if so, what are the details for each of those changes.

At the time this article was published, Ballard has yet to respond and if the musicians hope to turn around a public relations campaign that arguably started off on the wrong foot and kept hopping in the same direction, they will begin to demand more from their paid representatives when it comes to timely communication. UPDATE 3/26/13; 9:20am CT: Mr. Ballard provided a vague response related to the musicians’ complaints.

Management has asked for changes in the Musician’s [sic] work schedule in order to accommodate their proposals currently on the table with regard to revenue enhancing opportunities.

Currently, I am awaiting a reply to a follow-up inquiry that once again asks for details regarding specific changes to existing work rules. An update will be published when/if it is received.

Theil responded within minutes and affirmed that he was unaware of any musician assertions.

I have not heard the musicians publicly state any specifics about work rule changes. As I am not in the negotiations myself, I can only comment on their public statements.

Although that’s a wonderful PR adaptation of the Jedi mind trick, these were the droids I was looking for and it is fairly clear that they know something about proposed work rule changes; consequently, I followed up with Theil in an attempt to learn more.

DM: I apologize if I was unclear in my previous note. I’m not asking for any sort of response to musician statements…what I am asking is if the SFS has included any work rule changes in either the three year or the most recent two year proposal; and if so, what are the details for each of those changes.
OT: When he asked me about what specific work rule changes the musicians might be referring, I told Janos that I do not know to what they are referring, and could not venture a guess since I can only go by what they have said publicly. I honestly do not know what specific work rule change they might be talking about in their statements. Every CBA negotiation includes a variety of discussions of work rules such as the scheduling and duration of rehearsals and concerts or touring conditions, schedules and per diems, run-out frequency etc. But again, it would not be fair for me to venture a guess as to what specific work rule they are referring in their comments.


DM: Thanks again Oliver but to be exceedingly clear here, I am not asking you about musician statements. Instead, I am asking you whether or not the SFS has included any work rule changes in either the three year or the most recent two year proposal; and if so, what are the details for each of those changes. Thank you in advance for providing those details.
OT: Thanks Drew, I do not have any specifics to share around work rules discussions as part of our CBA negotiations with our musicians.

If nothing else, it seems as though there is certainly something going on regarding work rule changes but neither side seems willing to provide any details.

In the end, playing close to the chest might be a good strategy for poker but wears thin in scenarios such as this where patrons and supporters are already growing weary of brinkmanship.

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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18 thoughts on “These Aren’t The Droids You’re Looking For…”

  1. Where is Lewis Carroll when you need him? We have shattered the Looking Glass and Wonderland lies hidden in a San Francisco fog bank.

    SFS musicians have taken to the Facebook barricades complaining than management forced them to strike (How does that work then?) and then ask why the tour was subsequently cancelled (Was management supposed to tour without the musicians? I might buy a ticket to THAT farce!)

    The work rule question you bring up is interesting, but not illuminating about the tour issue. The one thing clearly on the record is that a federal mediator recommended a 60 day cooling off period under the old contract (no work rule or salary changes). It seems to this outside observer with limited facts in hand (deliberate obfuscation on both sides?) that the union delayed response to management’s offers until the point of maximum pressure (the tour) to try to force its will.

    Didn’t work out so well.

    Now the propaganda parade seems to have moved on to “fairness” in allocation of financial resources. Money being spent to upgrade facilities, money for administration, etc. But arises the question: If, for example, money has been raised from donors specifically to upgrade their lobby experience, why can it be assumed that this money can be used for other purposes? If I, as a donor, wanted to erect an 80 foot obelisk in front of Davies Hall with a golden statue of MTT on top, and had zoning permission to do so, what claim do musicians or staff have on this largess?

    Stupid as it would be (I guess), it would be my money.

    • Good points all around Chris and if anything, I think the equality issue is the one relevant point in this entire dispute. During a time when a performing arts organization should be proud to weather the economic downturn as well as this group has, it should continue to be a leader in breaking the old us vs. them attitudes by going out of its way to apply any gains or losses equally among stakeholders.

      For example, we have yet to hear from either side about the mid and entry level staffers. Has their wages/benefits been cut, froze, or increased?

      Your example about donor wishes is intriguing as it touches a very raw nerve in this business and the nature of orchestras as non-profit organizations. I love your fictional example of the 80 foot obelisk with the golden statue of MTT. Specifically, should a tax paying citizen be able to enjoy the benefits of tax deductible donation for the purpose of showing glory and praise on a single individual?

      Granted, these issues become far less black and white when applied to brick and motor capital projects etc. but even then, there’s an argument to be made that those projects shouldn’t have much impact on the available resources allocated toward wages and benefits for all employees.

      For now, both sides appear content with hiding behind traditional labor dispute barricades when those cold war era bunkers offer little protection in today’s environment. It is disheartening to see the institution go through this process in order to internalize these realizations.

  2. You want specifics about work rules? I’m not sure why.
    Will it help you understand why 100 people would go without
    pay, and soon, health care, for however many weeks this strike goes on?
    Will it help you understand why 100 people give up at least $2700 a week for the
    job that many believe could be done by high school students?
    Will it help you understand why the Chicago Symphony musicians, Boston Symphony musicians,
    and National Symphony musicians support the SFS musicians?

    Here are some interesting specifics….the SFS (SFO is an airport, by the way), since 1984, has had
    5 strikes, and two almost strikes. The almost strikes were averted by two tours, one Asian, one west coast. Brinksmanship, or pressure point….you be the judge, as you have been.

    In the same 29 years, the Los Angeles Philharmonic has had NO strikes, or work stoppages.
    The contracts, pay, healthcare, pensions are similar. How does one organization, or ‘institution’ achieve and maintain ‘harmony’ without union thuggery (big time sarcasm), while the other, 400 miles north, historically has not been able to maintain this harmonic convergence.

    Musicians must be at fault, those damn greedy, whiney musicians with a sense of entitlement, who have no concern for the health of ‘the institution.’ Yeah, that’s the ticket.
    Was it the musicians, the union thugs, who drew $3 million dollars for the endowment for a ‘feasibility study’… it feasible to spend $500 million dollars for ‘improvements’ to a building, which is owned by the city? Oh, but the deficits….big, big, big deficits….better yet, the beloved term…’structural deficits’….I guess the musicians are the structural deficits.

    Who should decide the compensation for the musicians….the public, the board? Should the musicians have a say in their compensation? It’s called negotiations….collective bargaining, the scourge of the current decade. How to get rid of the ‘structural deficit? Get rid of the musicians, yeah, that would save the institution…keep it viable.
    After all, aren’t there thousands of musicians out there? Put an ad in CraigsList, like the Louisville Symphony did….

    That’s right. When there is concern about the health of the ‘institution’, and musicians are not a part of that ‘institution,’ they are the PROBLEM with maintaining the health of the ‘institution.’ Again, musicians=structural deficits.

    Here are some more specifics: the Collective (meaning the musicians) Bargaining Agreement expired in late November; an extension was agreed upon to February 15. From February 15 until March 13, the musicians played without a contract……little movement toward the middle had occurred since the previous July. All movement came from one side, with the other side sitting with arms folded….”not good enough, try again” (a phrase musicians are used to hearing).

    This work stoppage comes as a surprise to ‘the public’, because the public is not sitting in hours of meetings (including hours of meetings about when there will be meetings). After the meetings, the musicians go on stage and play concerts, or go home at midnight and practice, and do laundry…..I’m not sure what the ‘other side’ does after hours of meetings….

    You want specifics, different specifics? Will more specificier specifics help you understand why SFS musicians go on strike to play for compensation similar to LA Phil musicians, and LA Phil does it with no strife (I gather that musicians are supposed to apologize for making the money they make, defend that, but folks in the financial ‘industry’ are ‘entitled’ to more compensation)?

    Wouldn’t it be nice to have a soundbite, a headline, to tie this up with a bow?
    If you think musicians are not so great at achieving this, the soundbite, perhaps it is because they usually are practicing, learning, relearning, always learning Beethoven, Mahler, Messiaen, Adams, Lidholm, Bernstein, Ades, Brahms, Dutilleux, Britten, Mozart, Sibelius, Shostikovich, Bartok, Bates, Bruckner, Rimsky-Korsavkov, Tchaikovsky, Haydn, Bach, Mahler, Mahler, Mahler.

    No matter what, it is the musicians who will be blamed for seeking a Pyrrhic victory…always the musicians fault, always…..what’s up with that?

    You think this is frustrating to you? Welcome to the club.

    • This is a fascinating comment and given some of your accounts about what took place during bargaining sessions, I’m curious to know if they are first hand or if you’re relaying the information as an intermediary.

      Nonetheless, to answer your inquiry about the impetus for asking about work rule changes is perhaps best summed up by referencing the Minnesota Orchestra Redline Agreement series of articles. Even if there were no economic concessions associated with those proposed demands, the situation would have likely ended up in a work stoppage. the nature, degree, and amount of changes are enough to give more than pause for any stakeholder. So yes, these items do matter and if either side in the SFS labor dispute wishes to engage proposed work rule changes as a source for the work stoppage then yes, they should be ready to provide some details.

      In the end, it would be surprising if there were anyone looking for an overly simplistic understanding of the reasons behind the work stoppage. Instead, having the full details in order to make a reasonable judgement is a much better course of action.

    • A couple of points.

      1. Regarding why the LAPO has not had any strikes, I have two words for you: Ernest Fleischmann. Just guessing that his long tenure there had something to do with it.

      2. Regarding work rule specifics. Because the actual monetary issues don’t seem that severe – that is, management has moved in the direction the musicians want – and because the musicians keep mentioning onerous work rule changes, yes, it would help the general public, and even music journalists, to understand the strike.

      Is management asking for one additional service a week? Two additional? Additional specific days of work? (One musician has stated that there has been a work rule change proposed that would require working on Christmas Eve, for example.)

      Please bear in mind that I’m pro-labor. I’d love to see you paid more. I also think that given SFS’s excellent financial condition, in difficult economic times when other orchestras are in desperate shape, I think Brent Assink has earned every penny he has been paid. I also believe there is or should be enough money around to pay the musicians more.

      Thanks, and I hope you will discuss any work rule changes that have been proposed by SFS’s management.


      Let me begin by stating that (I think) I understand the point that you are trying to make: The musicians are NOT the problem when it comes to negotiating compensation as part of a larger conversation about institutional solvency & financial security.
      Let me also state that my goal here is to write a counter-argument to this post for the purposes of laying out the what happens on the other side of any given orchestra operation – specifically for a larger organization as I’m sure many smaller groups do not have the same level of assumed separation between musician and management as those you would find in San Francisco. I am NOT writing from the perspective of “management”.
      And FINALLY – I am not a part of the SFS or LA Phil and have no knowledge of either organization. This is a general (anonymous) rebuttal to the points brought forth in the previous blog post.
      I was hired to work for a larger orchestra. It was an entry level position to the tune of LESS THAN $30,000 PER YEAR (which is $567/week to the SFO musician’s $2700/wk that you quoted). The job required a college education (read: school loans) and long hours (read: long commute because I couldn’t afford to live in the city in which I worked). The position required a minimum of 50 hours per week which would routinely go as high as 70 (and, on several occasions during our summer season, topped out at 90+) which obviously left little time for my own musical or social considerations. In short, the nature of my position required a certain level of dedication to the orchestra and its needs – much in the way that a musician must dedicate him/herself to the musical requirements of an orchestra’s artistic directives.
      I imagine there are others like me in the SFS admin offices right now who can sympathize.
      I should point out that many musicians, in addition to their CBA defined compensation, routinely offer private lessons and teach at the college level throughout the area (in some cases at several institutions) which provides an additional source of income. These players typically use the orchestra’s limited facilities to provide these additional services at no cost to them.
      Additional income streams such as this do not make themselves readily available to admin staff for a variety of reasons – the most significant one is TIME. Many of our admin staff are also conservatory trained musicians working long hours to support their musical brethren.
      Inevitably the concepts of specialized skill, the risk of devoting one’s life to musical performance and not “making it” as well as the idea that without the musicians there isn’t an orchestra will all come to the forefront. All of these arguments are true. You couldn’t substitute me for one of our players, I didn’t devote my life to the art of musical performance and I didn’t run the risk not making it in the orchestra world in quite the same way they did. For their success and dedication our players should be rewarded.
      But despite all of these truths –orchestras need management. Not in a top down, “people need to be governed” manner but there needs to be a structure – separate from the musical collective – whose sole purpose is to build and protect the infrastructure that allows an orchestra to exist and (hopefully) to thrive well into the future. Such an infrastructure typically includes fundraising, facility management, city & state licensing, collective bargaining agreements with other unions (box office, usher, stage hands, etc) as well as the hiring, paying and management of the staff responsible for all of these activities (which represents only a handful of what a full time admin staff encompasses or does).
      I would be interested to hear from those players who are active in their union from an administrative position – from their individual orchestras (example: artistic direction committee, player personnel committee, audition committee) to those few who operate on the national level (Bruce Ridge, Chairperson for ICSOM and a professional double bass player is great example). These folks, some of whom are already your colleagues, have some idea of the time and energy it takes to manage groups of this size and complexity. This is a reality that I feel most musicians are not prepared for or one that they don’t completely understand.
      PLAYERS: Your management team works hard to keep the infrastructure of your organization healthy and moving forward. They are responsible for making sure that you have what you need to perform at a peak level while trying to do so for the remainder of the staff. And the staffers? They work tirelessly to provide funding and services that make what you do possible! The next time you walk on stage remember that a stage hand placed that chair for you. The next time the lights come on, know that an electrician turned them on and that a development staffer raised the money to make sure we can pay the electric bill.
      BOTTOM LINE: For organizations as large and complex as SFS – players needs management as much or MORE than management needs players. My gut feeling is that we spend so much time haggling over numbers that represent the value of the player’s contribution that the contributions of those not on stage are forgotten or marginalized to our detriment.
      Just to put it in perspective – my pay has doubled in the many years I’ve worked at my orchestra and it is still LESS THAN

      • Just to put it in perspective – my pay has doubled in the many years I’ve worked at my orchestra and it is still LESS THAN 50% of the annual pay of the SFS musicians as previously quoted.

        It is hard to feel sympathetic at a 50% discount.

        All of this brings me to this conclusion: players and management are not two warring parties on either side of the negotiating table. We are two sides of the same coin – one does not exist without the other. Unless both players and management can pause in the pursuit of their own goals and focus on the long term health and viability of the organization – which is more than the pay and benefits for the players and more than management’s bottom line – then the orchestra in question will fail.
        Players should note that I (and others like me) could do administrative work for a Fortune 500 company, get better pay and likely better hours – but we don’t. We have chosen to join – and have chosen to remain with – an orchestra.

        We work for you and we are here to support you. Please consider supporting us too.
        Below is an incomplete list of some of the work done by orchestra staffers:
        – Stage operations
        – Facility maintenance
        – Payroll
        – Human Resources
        – Accounting
        – Investing / Pension Management
        – Marketing (Campaign Planning / Graphic Design / Ad Purchasing)
        – Box Office (Sales / Operations / Maintenance)
        – Development / Fundraising/Sponsorship
        – E-Commerce / Website Management

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  4. A. DeRamus
    Drew, This is a negotiation between the musicians and their management. WE are not included in that process and WE will not get any straight answers out of any of them until that negotiation is over. Keep your shirt on and hang in there, babe. Thanks.

    • I understand your perspective but vigorously disagree with the sentiment. If either side didn’t want stakeholders outside of direct negotiations involved, they wouldn’t have gone public. Once it goes public, there are questions to be answer and when they are blown off and deflection is a toy to be played with until it is no longer entertaining, don’t be shocked by the consequences.

      • Absolutely, Drew. Everything is fair game, for ill or better, as far as orchestra communities watching each other’s move…I suppose like interesting or controversial legal judgments setting precedent across the country.

        It sure as hell is our business…I’m vested as deeply as my checkbook will allow, though much deeper in my heart.

  5. Well…One comment certainly had a lot of heat, but still so little illumination. Unless someone decides soon to arrive at this table with specific grievances other than negotiation deadlines unmet (on both sides?), soon the public will simply cease to care. Those that purchased tickets to the east coast tour and were left waiting (and maybe feeling a little insulted) maybe first in that uncaring line.

    Probably my last comment on this post….so bored…

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