Is There A Way To “Win” Baltimore’s Labor Dispute?

Out of the gate, it’s fair to mention that in a labor dispute as contentious as the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s (BSO), there are no “winners,” only shades of loss. Events this week have demonstrated the executive leadership appear to be dug in for the long haul and the musicians have responded in kind. If nothing else, the post economic downturn era has provided some clear patterns on how things may develop.

To that end, let’s examine four situations: two where the employer came out on top, and two where musicians secured success.

The Employer Win

Adaptistration People 125Two of the most prominent wins for employers are the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) and Philadelphia Orchestra. However, both groups used different approaches to achieve their goals.

In Philadelphia, they adopted a novel approach of declaring reorganization bankruptcy even though their coffers had plenty of revenue. The executive leadership allocated hundreds of thousands of dollars toward legal fees related to the bankruptcy filing in anticipation that the musicians would be incapable of keeping pace. In short, they bought a ruling.

This all but removed the court of public opinion and once legal resistance from the musicians’ union became ineffective, it took comparatively short amount of time to secure court sanctioned authority to force their concessions through.

Detroit played a more traditional game of using third party foundations to provide pressure for insisting on concessions. Claiming eroding earned income and a loss of legacy donors, they turned to promised foundation funding to legitimize cuts; If we don’t cut our budget, these foundations won’t give us the money they’re promising and then we’re really going to be in a bad place.

When combined with previously unseen levels of shamelessness, the executive leadership dug in claiming their hands were tied and they had to force concessions in order to satisfy major funder demands. The musicians never successfully challenged the financial condition and ultimately capitulated.

The Musician Win

Adaptistration People 063There have been two clear wins for musicians: the Minnesota Orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Much like the employer example, both groups took very different paths.

In New York, the Met musicians distinguished themselves by conducting such a thorough technical analysis of the institution’s finances that it justified bringing in an independent financial analyst. When all was said and done, that analyst confirmed the vast majority of what the musicians defined as disconcerting financial and strategic decision making by the Met’s General Manager.

The result was the employer backed off its demands and agreed to ongoing increased independent oversight and improved financial transparency. The musicians managed to avoid a prolonged work stoppage and while the jury is still out on the organization’s ongoing health, for all intents and purposes, it has become more efficient without undue cuts to labor costs or artistic quality.

In Minnesota, the musicians adopted a very different approach that was rooted firmly in a willingness to endure a great deal of financial hardship. The bulk of their strategy relied on developing an influential patron base that went beyond offering mere support and adopted a more proactive approach.

This was amplified through direct public support from their music director, who was ultimately pushed out by the executive leadership for his position. The combination of these pressure points allowed them to systematically pick apart the employer’s position until it became clear that purported financial distress was, in large part, artificially generated. When the dust settled, the executive leadership was removed (albeit with the CEO receiving a jaw dropping golden parachute), the music director reinstated, and a new slate of board leaders were introduced to help facilitate recovery and financial stability.

So Where Does This Leave Baltimore?

While every labor dispute is unique, actions up to this point in time indicate the BSO is following a similar path as Detroit with a little bit of Minnesota thrown in for flavor.

The past week has seen the BSO executive leadership lay the foundation for a similar “our hands are tied” approach as Detroit. You have a third party foundation indicating they won’t release funds unless the orchestra enacts concessions and some good old fashioned reporting recently discovered that the BSO CEO, Peter Kjome, has been asking for similar statements from state funders attached to potential bridge funding.

However, the orchestra did manage to secure fittingly alarmist driven conclusions from their recent audit.

For their part, the musicians don’t appear to be following anything close to what their counterparts at The Met accomplished. They have managed to begin encouraging organized patron support groups and they’ve garnered support of State legislators, which is not unlike what transpired at Minnesota.

If things unfold in similar fashion as Minnesota, they’ll need to be prepared to lose the entire 2019/20 season and manage to secure the public support of music director Marin Alsop, who has remained mostly out of the picture.

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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