Kalamazoo Musicians Cry Foul

The 5/20/2016 edition of mlive.com published an article by Al Jones that reports on an unfair labor charge filed against the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra (KSO) by the union representing its musicians.

The official National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) case lists that allegation as 8(a)(5) Repudiation/Modification of Contract [Sec 8(d)/Unilateral Changes], which the NLRB defines as such:

Section 8(a)(5)—Refusal to Bargain in Good Faith. Section 8(a)(5) makes it illegal for an employer to refuse to bargain in good faith about wages, hours, and other conditions of employment with the representative selected by a majority of the employees in a unit appropriate for collective bargaining. A bargaining representative which seeks to enforce its right concerning an employer under this section must show that it has been designated by a majority of the employees, that the unit is appropriate, and that there has been both a demand that the employer bargain and a refusal by the employer to do so.

Jones’ article does a superb job at summarizing the trouble.

At the crux of the union’s complaint are plans by orchestra management to schedule two rehearsal sessions on each of the two days preceding the shows in the KSO’s symphonic concert series, rather than have one session per day for four days preceding a show. There may also be a rehearsal on the same day as a show.

Adaptistration People 123For a sizable number of musicians, this presents an irreconcilable problem since that schedule would conflict with their ability to earn a living when the KSO pays all but a few of the musicians anywhere from $3,500 to $6,200 per year.

Prior to this change, services were scheduled in the evening hours so as to allow musicians flexibility to pursue additional jobs necessary to earn a living wage.

For most US orchestras with annual budgets below $4 million, this is a very typical arrangement.

However, moving from a series of single rehearsals to doubles typical generates an operational savings, which is what the KSO was reportingly hoping to achieve.

“Shortening the rehearsal period with the two-day schedule will allow the KSO to save about $45,000 annually, [Peter Gistelinck, KSO president and CEO] said.”

By failing to include this known change during recent collective bargaining agreement negotiations, the musicians assert that the employer deliberately misled them in an effort to accept terms that would have otherwise been objectionable.

KSO cellist and Local 228 Vice President Elizabeth Start said, “This schedule change throws things on its head. If we knew they were going to [propose the schedule change], we would have done everything differently.”

Cutting Through Some Spin

According to the article, Gistelinck asserts that in addition to the cost savings, the scheduling change will help the orchestra attract better guest artists than those current used.

Gistelinck said it also creates more access and easier access for guest soloists and guest conductors to perform. They can visit Kalamazoo for two to three days, rather than four or five.

“If you really want to bring in high level stars, they can’t spend four to five days in the community,” he said.

Gistelinck’s statement is accurate, most soloists prefer not to devote more than a few days to an engagement. But the crucial bit left out of that assertion is more often than not, that’s how things currently work.

For instance, if the KSO were to hire a “high level star” such as violin soloist Gil Shamam, that sort of soloist typically arrives for one or two rehearsals prior to the first scheduled performance. As such, there is zero added benefit to the KSO by moving from a four to two-day rehearsal schedule.

At best, Gistelinck’s claim is marginal and without evidence that the KSO has been unable to attract what he defined as a “high level star” guest soloist, this comes across as more of a red herring than an artistic limitation.

Then there’s the proposed cost savings of $45,000.

Undoubtedly, moving to double rehearsal schedules will certainly produce an operational savings. Assuming the $45,000 figure is accurate, that amounts to approximately 1.5 percent of the KSO’s annual budget, which is a comparatively negligible and entirely manageable expense to accommodate.

According the KSO’s last available IRS Form 990, which covers the 2013/14 season, the orchestra ran a $99,131 surplus on a $2,604,338 total expenditure, or 3.8 percent. That total expenditure was already $101,895 lower than the previous season, which indicates the organization is already doing a good job managing income/expenses. The KSO’s strategic plan webpage reinforces this position.

The Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra (KSO) is more fortunate than many of its peer organizations. The KSO enjoys the long-standing support and generosity of its community, a consistent subscriber base, and the security that a strong endowment provides. Thanks to strong community support, artistic excellence, a committed staff and board, and strong education and community programs, the KSO has been able to weather the storms of a shifting arts environment. Still, the organization must be ready to adapt, reinvent, and improve in a dynamic and accelerating environment.

Consequently, a 1.5 percent savings seems like a very low return on investment in light of an unfair labor charge and encouraging hostile labor relations at an orchestra that is otherwise on the brink of ratifying a new master agreement.

If nothing else, the KSO labor dispute draws an intriguing juxtaposition to yesterday’s article about growing tensions between legislators, the “gig economy” employment model, and its potential impact on the orchestra field.

Typically, we see orchestra employers package musician budget cuts as increased flexibility and independence to peruse artistic endeavors outside the institution. But in the KSO’s case, they want to accomplish expense reductions at the expense of their musicians’ flexibility to earn a living wage via one or more employment vehicles.

On surface value, it looks very much like an effort to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Having said that, things could change on a dime and by this time next week, the KSO could back away from the proposed changes, the musicians could drop their NLRB charge, and the new agreement could be ratified. There are more questions to ask, but it’s worth seeing if the group can resolve the matter on their own in light of the increased public scrutiny.

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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4 thoughts on “Kalamazoo Musicians Cry Foul”

  1. As you and I know Drew, double, triple doubles are not an industry standard. Gistelinck is just plain wrong on this matter.

    The Managerial Prerogatives card often comes up in symphony negotiations. Sometimes symphony board Pro-bono lawyers who often come from large corporate firms cannot get over the things musicians care about and require to perform at the highest levels.

    I remember how agitated Bob Batissta, DSOs labor lawyer got during Detroit Symphony negotiations when we wanted to retain some say in the choice of conductors. There have been strikes over what is normally Managerial Prerogatives in other industries.

    So just because Gistelinck may have it, he should not play the Managerial Prerogatives card. Having said this, hopefully the NLRB will decide this was a mandatory subject of bargaining. Cheers-Gordon Stump, President Emeritus, Local 5

    • For the sake of clarity and readers who are not directly involved in the field, double service days (where two rehearsals or a rehearsal and a performance are scheduled on the same day) do exist but most orchestras across all budget size have language in the collective bargaining agreement which specifies the maximum number and frequency they occur.

      On that point, using a rehearsal and performance scheudle that relies entirely on double services for the full ensemble is rare; moreover, it is typically used in micro-budget ensembles; those which offer around six performances per year and have annual budgets anywhere in the five to six figure range (all of which are lower than the KSO’s budget).

      If the situation does not resolve on its own and we end up examining these details with additional articles, I am anxious to learn more from the KSO about which ensembles they are using which support Gistelinck’s assertion on this item.

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