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Games (if not fun) in Louisville

0 Robert Levine

The most recent attempt by the board and management of the Louisville Orchestra to appear to be trying to settle what has turned into the orchestral equivalent of WW3 was to propose an interesting form of arbitration; one that would have required the Louisville Orchestra musicians to agree in advance to several provisions that they had already demonstrated clearly were bright-line issues to them; as Drew McManus described the rejection of the offer by the musicians:

…This comes as no real surprise in that the offer had a number of provisos tailored to ensure that any decision would conform to financial and operational parameters contained in their previous proposals, all of which have been previously rejected by LO musicians.

Moreover, the lack of any input on selecting the pool of arbitrator candidates made the offer more of an empty gesture than a shared risk effort to end the work stoppage.

One possible option for the musicians, in the face of what was intended by management t0 be seen as a reasonable offer, would have been to make a reasonable counter-offer, which could have led to them, as political spinmeisters would say, “winning the news cycle” if not actually getting any closer to any kind of settlement, given management’s intransigence on the core issues. They chose a different path; choosing to reject the offer and calling the Mayor to convene a panel:

Louisville Orchestra musicians rejected the board’s offer Thursday to settle a nearly yearlong contract dispute through binding arbitration, calling the details of the proposal “draconian.”

Kim Tichenor, a violinist with the orchestra and the players’ negotiating committee chair, declined to elaborate on the musicians’ decision or on the next action they are considering.

A letter from the musicians to the orchestra board’s attorney stated that the musicians rejected the proposal in part because the board chose the initial list of arbitrators, set parameters that would limit the arbitrator’s authority and refused to entertain counterproposals.

…Tichenor stressed that the musicians hope the Fund for the Arts and Mayor Greg Fischer will convene a special panel to resolve the dispute, as suggested in a report by orchestra industry consultant Henry Fogel, who visited Louisville in January at the musicians’ request.

“That would get things back on track,” she said.

But Fischer, in a statement Thursday night, said: “Until both sides can agree to a course of action that is binding on both of them, any attempt to further study the issue seems futile. I am happy to offer any assistance from my office once the parties come to a binding agreement on a process … for moving to resolution. I urge both parties to take a fresh look at the impasse and resolve it for the good of our community.”

Drew McManus wrote, in the same post,  that the musicians:

missed an influential opportunity to push the ordeal toward a better direction vis-a-vis their latest PR and public demonstration efforts and instead decided to endorse a course of action that has already failed to resolve the conflict.

I wondered about that too. But I think what the musicians’ rejection really means is not that they missed a PR opportunity but rather that they’ve decided to fight a different battle. It’s not about pressuring management, through PR, to come back to the table in any form, I suspect, but rather about bringing to bear external pressure to get new leadership for the orchestra.

There’s not much point, after all, in getting a leadership as malign and inept as their board and management, as perceived to be by the musicians, to agree to anything; it’s rather like a battered spouse returning to the family home after the 10th call to police over a few months. At some point the promises to do better have no credibility, especially when made under external duress.

I suspect that’s the real goal behind this:

Louisville Orchestra musicians are determined to not stay quiet. Monday their chorus of protest grew as dozen of union members from the Jefferson County Teachers Association, AFL-CIO, firefighters’ union, and the UAW threw their support behind the musicians. “We want the Louisville Orchestra to remain alive and well here in Louisville,” says James Carrico with CWA Local 3310.

…Musicians seem ready to balk the latest arbitration deal while other union members launched attacks at Fund for the Arts with many promising not to donate to the fundraising campaign that kicked off 2 weeks ago. “I will go to our members and advocate that they do not donate any money to the Fund for the Arts for these sinister acts upon the Louisville Orchestra,” says Craig Willam with Louisville Firefighters Local 345.

This is hardball with a vengeance, and, to the best of my knowledge, has never been tried before in an orchestral labor dispute. Obviously there are risks, one being that a power play of that rawness is going to be viewed by some as unseemly. But it’s hard to imagine anything else that could bring the major player in Louisville, the Fund for the Arts, into the equation as effectively. Stepping on someone’s oxygen line is seldom met with gratitude - but it can cause the oxygenee to want to fix the problem.

One other point should be made, though. There is a temptation amongst analysts of this (and many other disputes) to try to balance coverage and commentary by distributing blame more or less evenly; a problem that James Fallows at The Atlantic calls “false equivalence.” An excellent example was provided by Louisville Orchestra CEO Rob Birman when he said of the proposal to involve the Mayor:

Orchestra CEO Robert Birman said Monday that he has no comment on the unions’ request, except to say that Fischer’s office participated in the negotiation process last fall, when it brokered the hiring of labor relations expert Ralph Craviso with money from an anonymous donor. Those negotiations failed.

Come to think of it, that’s actually a better example of chutzpah, defined unforgettably by the late Leo Rosten as someone who murdered his parents pleading for mercy on the grounds that he’s an orphan.

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