Is Fort Worth’s Glass Half-Full Or Half-Empty?

Now that the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra (FWSO) managed to avoid an ugly work stoppage and temporarily release some labor pressure by agreeing to a one-year extension, both sides have the opportunity to emerge from the specter of brinkmanship. Having said that, let’s examine some glass-half-full/glass-half-empty scenarios that may unfold over the next six months of negotiations.

Glass-Half-Full

Adaptistration People 184Ultimately, negotiations are all about revenue and expenses but even though the latter is determined for one or more years in advance, it is ultimately a derivative of the former. In FWSO’s case, even though there are sharp differences in how the employer and musician employees perceive revenue potential and earned/unearned income performance, there’s potential for progress.

  • The musicians have asserted that the orchestra’s board and administrative leaders have yet to maximize potential for unearned income and there is clearly room for improvement, especially via investment income with what appears to be an underperforming endowment. According to the FWSO, their endowment is still 15 percent below pre economic downturn levels, which is ripe for improved performance, especially when compared to endowment performance from the nonprofit education sector.
  • There’s strong potential here for both stakeholders to realign entrenched positions on artistic expenses related to fee based earned income activity and converting a portion of existing vacation time to revenue generating activity (more on that last item in a future post).
  • So long as both sides can focus more on rallying support for a common vision instead of using the added time for retooling existing talking points for brinkmanship, there’s a strong case that the institution can emerge as the latest benchmark for institutional turnaround sans scorched earth labor relations.

These are perfectly reasonable cases for a glass-half-full outlook and the FWSO wouldn’t be the first group to walk down that path. Recent labor disputes in Seattle and Nashville were headed toward ugly outcomes, but those groups managed to rise to the occasion.

Glass-Half-Empty

Adaptistration People 184aaHistory can be a cruel mistress and when it comes to post-economic downturn labor relations, she can be downright objectionable. If the FWSO’s stakeholders adopt some of these less desirable traits, you can expect things to be far worse when they reach July, 2016 than they were the previous year.

  • The FWSO has already projected a bleak economic outlook for the 2015/16 season via a $650,000 deficit and the best way to support an austerity driven position is to exacerbate losses, strangle cash flow, and create genuine financial panic. The remaining time in the one-year extension is plenty for accomplishing exactly that should the orchestra’s executive leadership desire.
  • Although there’s no doubt that musician stakeholders will remain committed to preparing for negotiations, they can easily let their foothold on patron communication slip away. As a result, they would reinforce a long held negative stereotype that they are only interested in reaching out when their income is threatened but once that fear is removed, outreach fades away. Although this sort of disingenuous behavior pattern was more readily tolerated by supporters in the pre-downturn era, it still manages to be the rule instead of the exception for player associations.
  • The extension announcement failed to include language that demonstrates both sides are actively exploring options for emerging from entrenched positions. Instead, the musicians adopted a tone that is perhaps best defined as we won, they lost while the employer doubled down on existing doom-and-gloom talking points.

Moving forward, although six months isn’t a luxurious amount of time for bargaining when both groups are at such diametrical opposition, it is still enough for stakeholders to begin contemplating which outcome they want to foster.

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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