Labor Tensions Continue To Rise In Colorado Springs As Orchestra Goes Dark

At the beginning of last month, labor relations at the Colorado Springs Philharmonic (CSPhil) were on the brink of all out war. After publishing feedback from employer and musician representatives, the orchestra’s president and CEO, Nathan Newbrough, wrote to say he thought things were moving in a positive direction.

While that’s a good sign, follow-up messages asking for details and whether the board has discussed the potential for offering work to non-rostered musicians considering their decision to cancel the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) have yet to be returned.

On October 18, 2020 the orchestra’s board Chairman, Herman Tiemens, issued a public statement laying blame for labor unrest on the musicians’ doorstep in the wake of their decision to cancel the CBA.

Sadly, the musicians decided not to accept the work we offered until we have another formal agreement in place, which is likely to take time.  While this is disheartening, we are committed to our relationship with the musicians and the future of the Philharmonic.  We are also committed to dialog with the musicians’ representatives in hopes of working out an arrangement so they can return to the concert stage.

Two days later, the board voted to cancel the rest of the 20/21 season.

Newbrough communicated the decision to musicians via email. Citing the uptick in COVID-19 cases and inability to assure the health and safety of patrons and employees, he informed stakeholders all concerts through May 31, 2021 were cancelled.

What’s particularly interesting is even though the employer asserts they have already cancelled the musicians’ CBA, they still cite force majeure as authority for the decision to cancel (spoiler: you don’t need to assert force majeure when there are no employee agreements in play).

The musicians responded with a public statement on October 28, 2020 that expressed dismay over the decision. What’s interesting is the clearly defined avenue for the board to save face and back away from increasing hostilities.

We know that many members of our Board care deeply about the musicians, the organization, and our community. We fear they may have been presented with an artificial choice: vote to cancel the musician’s contract, or face the orchestra’s certain financial doom. Why artificial? We had already agreed to the financial concessions requested and had even proposed less costly options to ensure financial stability for the organization.

Regular readers know how much we examine the need for offering face-saving avenues as a way to step back from hostilities. Having said that, nothing stopped the musicians from pointing out some obvious reasons why the force majeure justification may be a difficult position for the employer to back away from.

In their effort to cancel the contract, the Philharmonic leadership relies upon language alleging that it is impossible for the Philharmonic to perform. Soon after the vote took place, however, the Philharmonic management attempted to hire musicians for several performances that could have easily been possible under the terms of our existing contract. Sadly, because management unlawfully terminated our contract and unilaterally imposed terms without negotiating, we have been unable to participate in these performances.

All of this begs some intriguing questions related to why the musicians’ concessions weren’t an acceptable solution until the pandemic subsides. According to the figures provided by the musicians, they are offering to accept several steep concessions.

For example, they offered a total musician compensation package costing less than $500k for a severely truncated 20/21 season. The board chair’s letter indicated they were offering $700k, with the sticking point of wanting to make it permanent whereas musicians were willing to accept for the current season then reassess where the pandemic and the CSPhil’s finances fell.

Both sides in the labor dispute indicate they are willing to continue talks but progress becomes increasingly less likely in the face of mass cancellations and public statements that focus more on the perception of differences.

In short, it’s tough to dodge your own self-fulfilling prophecy.

For now, both sides remain engaged in mediated bargaining overseen by a Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service mediator. Multiple sessions are scheduled for this week.

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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