The Various Paths Of COVID Era Bargaining

As shutdowns continue, orchestras with regularly scheduled collective bargaining agreement (CBA) renewals are finding themselves thrust into bargaining during less than ideal conditions. Add those with need reopen existing CBAs into the mix and we’re just starting to see how all of this is unfolding.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) announced a new multi-year agreement that includes cuts, although it’s a bit uncertain exactly how much and over what period. We’ll have to wait for a copy of the agreement as the press statement version only includes broad strokes. Cuts are spelled out in averages and any potential restoration is contingent on future revenues. Average pay cuts for the first year are reportedly 37 percent.

In other cities, CBA talks have grown downright contentious.

Janos Gereben, writing for Iron Tongue of Midnight, examines ongoing talks at the San Francisco Opera and based on information from his sources, things could be bleak.

Instead of news of a settlement at the Opera, received a message from a donor recently: “Mr. Shilvock appears to be playing hardball with the orchestra musicians, demanding steep and long-term salary cuts. I support both West Edge and SF Opera, and I can’t help but notice that West Edge, with meager assets, managed to pay everyone 2/3rd of their committed salaries, while SF Opera, with 1/4 BILLION in assets, is squeezing the musicians –  negotiations are ongoing but I hear Mr. Shilvock wants to pay only 20%!” Musicians confirmed that they are still waiting to find out about a plan for compensation, one of them saying “It seems they are not negotiating in good faith. We all thought we were a family. There are no plans.”

In Knoxville, things reached a boiling point and spilled over into public view at the end of August. Almost immediately, the orchestra began engaging patrons via Facebook wall conversations and things quickly went sideways. Let’s just say it’s doubtful the orchestra Leadership’s behavior will distinguish them in the annals of de-escalation techniques. For now, the musicians have filed a grievance after the employer furloughed them a week before the season was set to begin.

Speaking of furloughing musicians during negotiations, the Ft. Wayne Philharmonic decided to furlough musicians through the end of January 2021. The decision was reached after more than a dozen negotiation sessions and while the group was without a long-term agreement. According to the musicians’ Facebook page, they don’t believe the employer has been bargaining in good faith and are fearful these cuts are the first step in eliminating the CBA entirely.

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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