Growing Discord In Indianapolis

At the end of June, we examined growing labor tensions at the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra (ISO) over what the musicians described as unnecessarily aggressive negotiations over back pay, benefits, and media agreement terms. Since then, I managed to have a conversation with the ISO’s CEO James Johnson.

Media Agreement

According to a press statement from the musicians, the employer was pushing for changes to the existing media agreement in order to make good on back pay. According to Johnson, that accusation is false.

“The ISO is not asking of any changes to the media agreement,” said Johnson.

For clarity, I asked Johnson if he was referring only to talks about providing musicians with back pay or if that also included any other discussions related to health care benefits or the larger collective bargaining agreement (CBA) negotiations.

“We have not asked for any changes to those terms,” he said. “That includes CBA negotiations.”

That’s about as contrary a position two sides can take so I went back to the musicians to see if there was any additional context on this topic.

According to Brian Smith, ISO Double Bassist and Chair of the Orchestra Committee, the ISO has been making very specific demands as a condition to providing back pay owned and a one-time health insurance stipend, equal to roughly two weeks of COBRA coverage for the average ISO family plan.

1) ISO permitted to stream an archival performance recording for free once per week through September 6th.  This is the orchestra’s “From the Vault” series.
2) ISO permitted to utilize new Musician-created volunteer promotional recordings of up to 45 minutes in length (previously limited to 15 minutes), and distribute such recordings without payment, 3 times per week, through July 31st.

In summary, Smith offered a clear characterization of Johnson’s rebuttal.

“Mr. Johnson’s assertion that the media rights agreement between management and the Musicians was unaltered during the current furlough is inaccurate,” said Smith.

Well, there it is. On one side, the ISO claims they never approached musicians with terms to modify the existing media agreement. On the other, the musicians have specific language they say came from the employer.

Cancelling Health Care Benefits

During my conversation with Johnson, he presented a scenario where the musicians were provided a choice over keeping health care benefits. According to him, the musicians were the ones who decided to cancel their benefits, but other union employees made a different decision.

“The ISO paid all outstanding wages through April 26 in full prior to June 7,” said Johnson. “All employees who are furloughed or laid-off are being offered health care. Those current health care benefits for furlough or laid-off ends Aug 31.  Our [International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE)] union employees did opt to continue the health care.”

This position is similarly contrary to the initial musician claims, so I asked Smith about that disconnect.

“To be clear, the ISO never made an offer that would provide continuing health care for the Musicians after June 7th,” said Smith. “Rather, as I stated in my previous message this morning, management would not provide the back pay (which was plainly owed to the Musicians and was not the ISO’s to withhold) or the stipend payment (which came entirely out of cost savings from summer cancellations) until the Musicians agreed to the expanded media rights.”

One thing that is clear is the ISO is playing a bit loose with this topic. There’s no getting around the reality that they did cancel health care benefits. Having said that, it appears they offered to extend them but only using funds from unpaid wages.

As we discovered back in June, those unpaid wages were the result of the ISO’s 42-week season being broken into 52-week installments.

“As a point of clarification, the Musicians of the ISO are paid for 42 weeks of work, but that pay is amortized over the full 52-week calendar,” said Smith. “Therefore, salary earned between the start of the ’19-’20 season and the implementation of force majeure by the ISO management had not been paid in full.  Because the ISO has cancelled the remainder of our performance season, the Musicians were owed back pay for services rendered.” 

Perhaps a more accurate way to describe the offer of continuing health care benefits is the employer only offered to do so using the employees’ unpaid wages. If that variable were removed from the equation, then the only option would have been cancelling benefits.

Negotiations And The 2020/21 Season

For now, the furloughs and cessation of health care benefits are in place through Aug 31, 2020, which is when the current CBA expires. When asked if the ISO has a plan or expectations past that point, Johnson indicated no decisions have been made on whether health care benefits will be restored regardless if a new agreement is reached.

Both sides have only just now started the bargaining process for a new CBA. Officially, the ISO has not cancelled any of their fall events and the musicians are scheduled to return on September 18, 2020.

I asked Johnson about what sorts of revenue streams are being examined to supplement traditional live concert ticket revenue, regardless of cancellations.

“Nothing,” said Johnson. “I don’t believe media will be any meaningful source of revenue. We are considering other options but I’m not optimistic we’ll be able to generate the same levels of revenue as traditional ticketed live concert events.”

While there’s little indication any professional orchestras think broadcast oriented activity can fully replace traditional ticket income, that’s not the same as developing supplemental revenue streams around broadcast activity and using that as a way to engage subscribers and donors.

If the ISO is considering those options, they appear to have a very defined set or parameters.

“Any new activity will need to focus on serving our community in similar ways we do now,” said Johnson.

Moving forward, the ISO has precious little time to reach a new agreement and they are entering those negotiations talking across a chasm of contrary public messages and growing hostility.

Hopefully, their respective paths forward will converge and produce a mutually agreeable settlement.

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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