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Orchestras and the union movement

1 Robert Levine

Milwaukee is not quite equidistant from Madison and Detroit, but it does sit precisely on the line between them that a crow (or a Boeing) would fly. So it’s fitting that events in Detroit and Madison resonate so loudly with this member of the Milwaukee Symphony - an orchestra in the Rust Belt that’s had major financial challenges over the years, and is also the major arts institution in the state that’s Ground Zero for the struggle over collective bargaining rights. They resonated so strongly, in fact, that I’ve traveled to both places to march - on Labor Day in Detroit with the DSO musicians and twice in the past two weeks with the protesters in Madison.

But the connection between Madison and Detroit - and the implications for Milwaukee - aren’t so clear as the straight line would suggest. The DSO is quite different than my orchestra in the nature and depth of its financial predicament, and the AFM is not a public sector union. So why does this all feel so ominous to me?

Perhaps it’s just that events in both places presage what could happen here and elsewhere in our industry. Certainly the events in Madison are part of what’s been a decades-long attack on the idea of unions and collective bargaining. I’ve been reading all the blogs I can find about what’s happening in Madison. Most interesting - and scary - are the comments (and generally the comments threads are huge; some blogs are racking up comments in unprecedented numbers). It really does feel as if class warfare has erupted in a very open form. The hostility to unions, and to those whose salaries are paid for by the government, has to be read to be believed.

It is, come to think of it, very reminiscent of the hostility displayed towards musicians in many comments on the articles that have appeared in the Detroit papers about the strike. Musicians, like public workers, are apparently parasites led by union thugs, sucking at the public teat, and soon to get their comeuppance.

Of course, in neither case is what people write on blog comment threads necessarily representative of the general public view. The support for public sector collective bargaining in polls has been quite surprising, given what one sees in the press:

The Gallup poll, however, suggests that while reducing benefits and pay for government workers is somewhat unpopular (it is opposed by a 53-44 margin), reducing their collective bargaining rights is much more clearly so (it is opposed 61-33). And Mr. Walker’s budget proposal aims to do some of both.

There’s no polling about orchestras; hardly surprising given the size of the orchestra business. It might well be that the public would support what orchestras need to continue to exist, even though some people show open hostility to the idea of musicians actually earning a decent income. It does appear that a basic dynamic in American society has shifted, as this article in the New York Times suggests:

Richard Freeman, an economist at Harvard, said he saw the hostility toward unions as a sign of decay in society. Some working-class people see so few possibilities for their lives that it is eroding the aspirational nature that has long been typical of Americans.

“It shows a hopelessness,” he said. “It used to be, ‘You have something I don’t have; I’ll go to my employer to get it, too. Now I don’t see any chance of getting it. I don’t want to be the lowest one on the totem pole, so I don’t want you to have it either.’ ”

But what is it that orchestras need to exist that is dependent on widespread public goodwill? Or, to put it another way, what changes in public policy or attitudes could be harmful to orchestras in the absence of general support for the existence of professional orchestras?

It has surprisingly little to do with unionization. Absent unions simply being outlawed, the well-being of orchestras, and orchestra musicians, isn’t that tied to the kinds of changes in labor law that the Right has tried to institute in Wisconsin and elsewhere. The AFM is not a public sector union, so it’s unaffected directly by restrictions on such unions. Right-to-work laws are another matter, but orchestras in right-to-work states appear generally to maintain high levels of union membership. Organizing restrictions aren’t often an issue, as most professional orchestras are already unionized. More important, professional orchestras seem to spontaneously self-organize, even when formal unionization isn’t a possibility.

That’s not to say that an effective labor movement is irrelevant to orchestras. It’s sure nice to have support in a strike, for example. But typically the kind of pressure that shorten strikes doesn’t come from other unions so much as it does from the general public. And we all want to work in a society that’s getting better and not worse; for me; for me, that requires a healthy union movement.

What in the public policy sphere does threaten orchestras? To figure this out requires understanding that orchestras could not exist without large amounts of contributed income. It would be possible, I believe to run an orchestra without ticket income (although it would do things differently in many ways). It’s simply not possible to earn enough money from ticket sales to pay musicians a living wage in addition to paying all the costs needed to put on the concerts and sell the tickets. The fact that most orchestras get more than half of their total revenue from contributions, either directly or from endowment income, makes this pretty clear.

So whatever threatens contributed income threatens the existence of orchestras. And there are two things that threaten contributed income, in my view - although they are related. The first is if people come to view orchestras as elitist and irrelevant to the life of the community; as not part of a community’s essential infrastructure. The second is if contributions to orchestras ever lose their tax-deductible status, which of course would be far more likely if people view orchestras as elitist and irrelevant.

The talk about “community engagement” in our field is driven mostly by these concerns. Unfortunately, as Drew McManus pointed out a few weeks ago, there’s precious little shared understanding about what that term might mean:

“Community service” is such a common phrase these days that many within the field have a pretty good image in their own mind as to what community service encompasses. Unfortunately, the very individual nature of that interpretation means there’s no way to have a reasonable discussion about it until everyone agrees on definitions and application. Consequently, it may not be surprising to see Mr. O’Riley’s critical comments generate such negative feedback; the sheer divergence of understanding about the term compounded by the multitude of complexities related with its involvement within the DSO bargaining sessions and existing efforts (from the organization and by musicians outside the auspices of the orchestra) all but guarantees a futile conversation.

Or, to put it slightly differently, everyone will impute the most threatening meaning to an undefined term as possible when it’s used by the “other side.” As it’s mostly management talking about community engagement and the need for orchestras to change, musicians tend to hear “community engagement” and “change” as “no more subscription concerts with adequate rehearsal and good conductors” and “pay musicians less.” And I have no doubt that some managers actually do mean those things.

But the concerns are real nonetheless, even it it’s just managements talking about them. And the sooner that musicians in orchestras not in the middle of bitter labor disputes start thinking about what community engagement could look like if it were done with the intention of maintaining decent incomes, job security, and job satisfaction, the better off we’ll all be.

(Note: Drew McManus posted yesterday on the same topic; although a different take on the topic, it’s definitely worth checking out.)

This post was revised at 9:04 PM CST on March 1, 2019 by the author.


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  1. Pingback by Detroit, Wisconsin, And The National Union Movement by Drew McManus
    March 1, 2019 at 7:37 PM

    […] Robert Levine posted something on this same topic the day after this article went up; although a different take on the […]