How Not To End The Dumpster Fire That Is 2020

2020 has been one series of challenges after another and while many groups have risen to meet the crisis with an eye toward shared sacrifice and longevity, there are always some that opt to engage in some of the very worst of behaviors.

And what better way to end 2020 than point out an article by Caitlin Myers in the 12/15/2020 edition of that highlights one of the standout labor disputes unfolding at the Knoxville Symphony.

Whether it’s Knoxville, Colorado Springs, Ft. Wayne, The Lyric Opera of Chicago, or The Met one thing ties all these disputes together: the employer is attempting to institute permanent and sizable concessions in wages, benefits, and work rules. This approach has supplanted the direction most groups have taken in the form of managing immediate financial needs and revisiting a longer-term agreement once the pandemic subsides.

Myers’ article takes a deep dive into not only the issues at the heart of Knoxville’s dispute, but its people.

This is one element that thanks to the pandemic, plays a stronger role than years past. The article focuses on two members of the musicians’ negotiating team and how they view their role as musicians, members of the community, and the work to secure a new collective bargaining agreement.

The pandemic is taking traditional pro vs. anti-union sentiments and replacing it with people. The author spends as much time examining Knoxville’s history with unionism and how it’s evolved over the years as it does examining the dispute. Ultimately, it leads readers past those talking points to consider the people these decisions impact.

For example, take this quote in the article from Knoxville Symphony Orchestra Executive Committee President John Winemiller.

“Not only is Knoxville not a union town,” but the union’s presence makes musicians lazy and looks “ungrateful.”

Replace that with the actual names of the two musicians profiled in the article and the statement takes on a whole new feel for the local community to consider.

“Not only is Knoxville not a union town,” but the union’s presence makes Audrey Pride and Elizabeth Farr lazy and look “ungrateful.”

In this scenario, Pride and Farr, both violinists in the orchestra, serve on the negotiating committee. They are the union, not some faceless entity pulling strings behind a metaphorical curtain.

Labeling negotiating through a pandemic driven crisis as hostile act when employers and employees everywhere are going through similar motions casts a very different light on everything than it did during pre-pandemic disputes.

It’s a reality both employers and employees can’t ignore.

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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