Reader Response: “You want specifics about work rules? I’m not sure why.”

It has been a very long time since a reader comment has been posted as a formal entry but a recent comment to the discussion thread from the 3/26/2013 article about the San Francisco Symphony work stoppage deserves the attention.

ITA-GUY-050For the sake of perspective; although this reader did post under an anonymous moniker, s/he did go through Adaptistration’s regular vetting process and at the end, it was clear that this individual deserved the protections against professional retribution.

The comment is presented here unedited and without commentary. I encourage every reader to post your thoughts and observations via your own comment to this post but be very clear that Adaptistration’s comment policy will continue to be evenly and strictly enforced.

That isn’t to say anyone should avoid challenging ideas and positions but resist any urges to slide into personal attacks or veering off topic; not to mention anything considered spam, inappropriate advertisements and/or promotion, and generally uncivil in nature. Quite the contrary, healthy debate is good for transparency but take the high road. In the end, it generally helps build a stronger position.

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.

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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20 thoughts on “Reader Response: “You want specifics about work rules? I’m not sure why.””

  1. Drew I’m sorry if I keeping singing the same tune, but the tactics have a familiar ring to my ears. One side(guess who) carves out an early, totally unacceptable position, and then behaves as if this self generated number was handed down from God. If the other side(my side) doesn’t cave immediately and acknowledge this received wisdom, they are “union thugs”, or they are greedy or selfish spoiled dilettantes. It’s not negotiating, it’s blackmail, with the musician stakeholders’ health and welfare held hostage. Structural deficits are a necessary by-product of what non-profits do, and you can bet that when it comes time to negotiate managements’ compensation, these self-imposed limits are not a problem.

    • Yes, the post certainly could have been written by someone in Minneapolis. The musician/letter-writer sounds like she/he is arguing against the Minnesota Orchestra’s CEO and Board chairman and not the SFS administration.

      Union thugs? Advertising for replacement musicians on CraigsList??

      As far as I can tell, nobody in San Francisco Symphony management has suggested (certainly not publicly) that the musicians’ union is behaving thuggishly or that the SFS musicians are replaceable at all, let alone by new conservatory grads or freelancers found via CraigsList.

      Brent Assink did say, when the strike was declared, “Our musicians are the center of our organization and are among the most talented in the world.” That may be press-release speak, and one may doubt its sincerity. But Assink is at least being respectful – far more so than, say, his Minnesota counterpart Michael Henson..

      The letter-writer seems to be waging war against some adversary other than the one the SFS musicians have. This does not make for a persuasive argument.

      The San Francisco Symphony musicians really are among the most talented in the world. But they have a serious communications problem.

  2. Being a musician myself, in a top tier orchestra, I have to say that this type of emotional and passionate outpouring from a fellow colleague is disappointing. I know tempers are hot and people feel they are not appreciated, but lengthy explanations like this represent ALL musicians in a bad light. Short, to the point, and respectful (sans the sarcasm) would win more supporters.

    The core concern about what ins’t being shared with the general public appears be getting lost, and yes, everyone needs to know what the issues are since both sides allowed the fight to spill into the public light. Both sides cannot just sit back and play coy while assuming supporters and patrons will peel off into pro/con camps based on who we are and not what we say and do. Everyone representing both sides in the orchestra brought this to our modern day arena and are both looking like arrogant jerks.

    Class it up, both management and musicians, you’re finger pointing, diatribes, and shoulder shrugs only serve to make things worse for everyone in our business.

    • kjh, I’m really surprised to hear someone in a top tier orchestra call out his/her colleagues in another top tier orchestra as “arrogant jerks”.

      It seems to me that the musicians framed a solid argument: huge tours, expanded budgets, endowment growth, and executive pay raises and bonuses. And the musicians are being forced to take a regressive contract. Should they just sit back and take it because the other side is crying poor? They don’t sound very poor.

      • I think you may have misread my comment. What I said was “Everyone representing both sides in the orchestra brought this to our modern day arena and are both looking like arrogant jerks.” I’m certainly not singling out the musicians because both sides are at fault here related to how the audience and donors digest the information.

        The fact that I play in a top tier orchestra does not mean I don’t support my fellow musicians in San Fran or any other orchestra currently locked out or on strike. Quite the contrary, I do support all colleagues and friends who are out of work at the moment.

        And to answer your question: no, the musicians shouldn’t lay back and take it, however, the musicians need to come together and pick a direction and style of communication that is concise and respectful.

        But, reread the original comment in the blog post from the perspective of a donor or a ticket buyer who has no understanding of what we put into our art not to mention the national situation regarding orchestras. Long letters full of sarcasm and facts that make sense to other musicians does not get a fair message across to those people we need the most, our public.

      • It’s not the substance of the SFS musicians’ arguments that makes anyone appear to be an arrogant jerk. Not at all.

        The arrogant jerkiness resides in the sarcasm and rage that fill this particular musician’s post.

        It resides in his/her obvious resentment of the idea that members of the public – who are, after all, the people whose ticket purchases and donations (and even a little bit of their taxes) pay for the SFS’s operations – should want to know the reasons why the musicians left their ticket-buyers in the lurch right before a major tour.

        It resides in the musicians’ immediate rejection of a mediator’s suggestion that they play on at least through that tour – followed by the claim that management “forced” them to strike.

        It resides in the clear implication (in the third-to-last paragraph) that, because the musicians are so busy practicing to perfect their art, they shouldn’t be expected to explain their position to the public whose money ultimately provides the salaries they’re striking for. (All of us need to remember that, in the US, symphony orchestras are fundamentally charities.)

        It resides in the seeming attitude (see the fourth-to-last paragraph) that the letter-writer and his/her SFS colleagues have a God-given right to get paid every single penny that their counterparts in Los Angeles do, and they’re not going to play until they get every one of those pennies. (I may be overstating here, but that’s how that paragraph reads. And while the extraordinary professionals of the SFS deserve top-notch pay, neither they nor anyone else in the world, including people in high finance, have a right to it.)

        Arrogant jerkiness even resides in little details – such as a snotty aside that the initials used for the orchestra in question are SFS and not SFO like the airport, followed later by referring to the Louisville Orchestra as the “Louisville Symphony”. (The mistake wouldn’t bear mention if it weren’t for the snotty aside.)

        The letter-writer and his/her SFS musician colleagues may not be arrogant jerks at all. They’re certainly terrific musicians. But if they care at all about what their public thinks, they need to take more care not to come across like arrogant jerks.

  3. Actually, I don’t really have much of a problem with what I’ve read, SO far (through the 1st response).

    All in all, this gives me a (somewhat twisted) sense of peace that I will probably be retiring from this industry within the next decade. Because money talks; and as long as certain 1%-ers on the Board of the League continue to shape its political agenda, I don’t see much change happening here.

    The people for whom I fear most are the young generation of musicians coming into the industry – the ones these managers are salivating over so publicly. For unless there is some kind of enlightened sea-change at the Leadership of the League, these musicians are going to be royally screwed by people who have no clue as to what we’re about.

  4. I’m bringing over my questions from “These Aren’t the Droids You’re Looking For,” because I’m still curious and the pseudonymous author the remarks hasn’t yet responded.

    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.

  5. An interesting, enlightening discussion here. I’m in Minneapolis, not a musician, but have worked for the MO in the past. I didn’t understand what “work rules” were either until it was explained to me — and I agree that it’s only fair that it be explained with specifics to the public, since both sides have involved the public (in MN they are primary stakeholders too). Thanks to Drew, I’ve been able to read the redline agreement offered to the MO musicians a year ago, and it’s taken me months to understand that it is because of such proposals by management that unions exist to protect workers, especially in the arts because arts managers, unless artists themselves, tend to perceive artists as kind of flaky people, incapable of dealing with business let alone money. All of which is far from the truth, of course. (I’m a writer and business person.)

    Suspicion simmers in MN (among patrons and others) that MOA management is actually embarked on union busting as well as betraying their own ignorance about what is the priority at a non-profit symphony orchestra. While orchestra boards of directors may have filled with business people without arts management or non-profit management experience (or even much love for music) to help these organizations function more as a business, they’ve taken the organizations in a disastrous direction and they don’t even understand that they have. The MOA Board is upset because the public has denigrated and vilified them for their actions during the last year when they claim they are only doing what is best for the organization…in terms of financial health without considering anything else. But they believe they have considered everything else, and here is where the disconnect is. They just don’t understand what the “everything else” is, like work rules. They gutted so many of the work rules, I believe, in the redline agreement in order to save money, that also reveals their ignorance. Like the fact that orchestra musicians work far more hours (in preparation, study, and practice) than those spent in rehearsal, at meetings and performing in concert. I believe the MOA management has expressed its ignorance to appeal to those in the public who share it and can’t understand why musicians need to be paid so much or have any work rules.

    Another issue here is the way the Board members and executive management have treated the musicians. What I have personally seen is the way they refer to the musicians as if they are not people at all but, as your commenter complained, “structural deficits” to be blamed for the financial issues they have now, instead of management standing up and taking the responsibility for the mistakes made in financial management, in decision-making, and in planning, that is theirs and theirs alone. The only thing they have accepted responsibility for is accepting bad investment advice from their investment adviser who no longer works for them. This is the other disconnect, I believe. It’s far easier for them to treat the musicians as objects and with disrespect than to man up and admit their fallibility. I believe this is a big reason we’re not seeing any flexibility on their side; after all, they do not need a counter-proposal to negotiate. They can sit down and talk with their proposal on the table. I also would like to see them retain different legal counsel, not the same lawyers involved in the long-running labor dispute at American Crystal Sugar where management is trying to bust the union. And of course, they need to remove Michael Henson from any authority for anything there.

  6. Historically speaking, orchestras have tended to develop in more of an underbelly of music than as a part of its virtues. Arguments and tumult have been more typical than amicable environments. We need look no further than Gustav Mahler and the emerging NYPO for just one example. So, in that light, we may look in awe and with respect at orchestras that are being effectively managed, rather than expecting every one to be so.

    Also, when it comes to the orchestras and the players, it seems easy to forget the mandate of ‘whatever the market will bear.’ We can only benefit by living in the real world of changing circumstances; a pretend would of entitlement tends to fall apart during a crisis such as this with the SFS and the MO/SPCO.

  7. Remind me never to make a comment again.
    After a couple of weeks of reading about how musicians are whiney/greedy, should be replaced,
    and are doing everything wrong, I let my anger/hurt/frustration get the better of me.
    Clearly, my rhetorical post was not as pithy and clever as I had hoped.
    The point(s) that I was trying to make, ended up making me look/sound like a schmoe.
    Apparently, I came across as snarky and arrogant. Maybe I am snarky and arrogant.
    ‘Twas ever thus.
    Remind me…..

  8. This ultimately is an issue of both sides negotiating in good faith. The key term here is ‘good faith.’ There clearly is a disconnect of values in orchestra managements as of late. However, I think musicians are ultimately at a disadvantage in the PR battle management vs. musicians. The musicians have to go out to the public and explain that they deserve this salary they think they deserve. Truthfully, sometimes it can come off as very pretentious. You will never see an orchestra CEO go out and have to beg the public that they deserve a $1million/year salary. Ever. It’s not fair, but hopefully the system of unions/collective bargaining is stable enough to weather this storm. Here’s to hoping the pendulum swings back towards stability.

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