What Orchestra Musicians Might Learn From The Current UAW Strike

How important is equal pay for equal work in today’s unionized orchestra environment? We examine this issue on a regular basis as it relates to substitute musicians, but the recent Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) work stoppage highlights a growing inequality at living wage orchestras between veteran and new-hire musicians by forcing the latter into a retirement program that provides markedly lower benefits.

Adaptistration People 040The impact on solidarity is self-apparent. In turn, degraded solidarity means an easier time for the employer to force slower growth in wages, benefits, and work conditions. While it has yet to happen, a more drastic byproduct would be the second-tier musicians taking retribution against veteran colleagues once they obtain a voting majority within the rank and file.

It doesn’t take much to see how things snowball from there.

As it stands, the ongoing United Auto Workers (UAW) work stoppage provides a glimpse into how labor unions are realizing the need to reinforce equality as a cornerstone of unionism.

The 10/7/19 edition of NPR’s Morning Edition included a segment about the UAW strike that reports one of the main sticking points is the employer’s refusal to move the class of new-hire employees created from economic downturn concessions into a similar wage and benefits status as veteran employees.

As the segment points out, the veteran UAW members have demonstrated a willingness to hold out on this demand while earning as little $250/week in strike payments.

While the differences between labor and culture unions are great enough to preclude comparisons, this is one area where they align completely.

In every instance prior to Chicago where orchestra musicians accepted deals that grandfathered current members into a higher paying benefit plan at the expense of incoming musicians, there have been no efforts to equalize the disparity.

CSO musicians have a long history of positioning themselves as the gold standard for how agreements unfold at other organizations. If that self-described moniker is accurate and they decide against pushing back and/or equalizing the pension inequality, they may find themselves leading their colleagues into a briar patch the UAW is currently fighting to avoid.

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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