Pittsburgh Symphony Labor Dispute Continues Down A Dark Path

The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (PSO) announced that it has cancelled all nine concert events scheduled through 10/27/2016 due to the ongoing musician strike. The decision to cut nearly one month of programming is rarely a good sign when it comes to ending a work stoppage but given how far apart both sides appear to be via their proposed salary terms, none of this should come as a surprise.

According to an article by Elizabeth Bloom in the 10/3/2016 edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, it appears that the employer has decided to engage in zero sum bargaining.

The management’s negotiating team was “mandated” by the PSO board not to budge any further on the matter of musicians’ salaries, [PSO COO Christian Schornich] said.

Adaptistration People 199From a historical perspective, zero sum bargaining is one of the hardest of old-school competitive bargaining tactics. In this approach, one side sets a fixed value for a negotiated resource, such as salary. When bargaining goes public, it is common to see the side employing this strategy present their position as one of flexibility. There are claims of willingness to discuss how and where resources are allocated, but only if the cumulative total remains unchanged.

Zero sum bargaining has been the hallmark for some of the most contentious negotiations since the economic downturn. Due to its very nature, it is next too impossible to arrive at a settlement that doesn’t require one party to lose in order for the other to win.

It was used during the Hartford Symphony and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra labor disputes and in both of those occurrences, the musicians capitulated and absorbed sizable concessions. However, a similar approach at the Metropolitan Opera labor showdown and the Minnesota Orchestra during their season long work stoppage ended up badly for the employers.

Assuming the PSO maintains this strategy, it will be interesting to see where they end up as it rarely produces anticipated long term results.

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 “Pittsburgh Symphony Labor Dispute Continues Down A Dark Path”

  1. I am noticing an interesting trend, not related to your blog post, that exposes a feudal society among full-time union orchestral personal and union members who are freelancers.

    On one hand, full-time orchestral members, who are on strike, do not want freelancers offering their service to orchestras during a work stoppage. On the other hand, the orchestra members, who are on strike, end up taking freelance jobs in other orchestras to supplement their income during work stoppage. During these work stoppages, such as Minnesota or Pittsburgh, very little is written about contract orchestra members taking work from their union brothers and sisters.

    In some trades unions we often hear, “The union is pricing us out of a job.”, I interpret this say to the cost of labor being so high that there is not enough work to go around. Is this becoming true in the world of contract orchestras?

    To explain my analogy to the music business being a feudal society:
    • The Lords (Administration) won’t pay the knights (Orchestra members) what they think they are worth.
    o The Lords take on the work of the serfs (freelancers).
    o The serfs, with no work left, starve and suffer the most.
    The question that presents itself: When will the serfs, who also pay union dues, get fed up with starving and take it upon themselves to become knights?

    • It’s true. Freelancers are definitely the lowest in the caste.

      Freelancers’ jobs substituting in big orchestras are taken away and handed to colleagues on strike to ease their suffering (nevermind the suffering those freelancers endure losing a week’s or more wages). Then those striking musicians negotiate contracts that pay freelancers less than the contracted musicians (not to mention paid sick and vacation days; health and instrument insurance; retirement). Then they charge those freelancers the same performance dues as the contracted musicians because, after all, they did negotiate on our behalf and we should shoulder our fair share of the cost of those negotiations.

      And we take it, because there’s no denying that gig with the big orchestra is the best gig in town, both artistically and financially. Plus, there are many more musicians outside in the cold envious of us because they’re not even in the caste. They’d be happy to take our seat in a moments notice. No freelancer wants to lose their job, no matter how tenuous the conditions of employment, and bitching about it is the fastest way for that to happen.

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