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The AFM is still wrong about the League

3

It’s hardly a secret that the relationship between the League of American Orchestras and the AFM and its symphonic player conferences has become publicly contentious since the beginning of the Great Recession in 2008. The latest manifestation of that is an article in the March 2013 edition of the International Musician written by Joel LeFevre, a member of the AFM Symphonic Services Division staff. Although not the first attack on the League by the AFM, in a way it’s the most “official,” in that it appears, not as one officer’s opinion, but as a formal analysis published by the AFM’s paper of record. Such articles do not appear without the blessing of at least the AFM’s Secretary-Treasurer, who is also the publisher of the IM. As such, it represents the most authoritative presentation to date of the AFM’s position.

That makes it doubly unfortunate that the analysis is so wrong. I haven’t spent the necessary time to try to verify the numbers cited in the article. But the analysis goes so far beyond what the numbers, even if accurate, would support that accepting the numbers in no way undermines criticism of the analysis. (Disclosure: as readers of this blog likely know by now, I am both an officer of an AFM local (and former player conference officer) and a member of the board of the League of American Orchestras. Whether this colors my analysis is for the reader to determine.)

The article begins with what is likely the truest statement in the whole piece:

The AFM staff and members have repeatedly expressed the opinion that the industry’s national association is driving a national labor relations lockout agenda.

This is not news; it’s generally accepted that most orchestra musicians don’t really trust the intentions of the League, and never have. This is, in my view, simply a natural extension of the lack of trust that most orchestra musicians harbor, either explicitly or otherwise, towards their employers. The League is seen, by musicians, as the employer analog of the AFM (incorrectly, but understandably) and is thus blamed for whatever bad is happening in the field. (It’s also not surprising that many orchestra board trustees and staff believe the equivalent of the AFM; that their orchestra’s musicians would be happy and content with their lot except for directives from 1501 Broadway to the contrary.) The League would be viewed this way by musicians regardless of what the AFM, or ICSOM, or ROPA said about the League. Whether or not this matters is a separate question.

The article proceeds through a lot of number-crunching to reach the following bottom line:

In 2012, the A&E sector had six of the eight lockouts - 75% of the lockouts in the country. In 2012, if you worked under the terms of a collective bargaining agreement being negotiated in the A&E sector, your odds of being locked out were one in 161, and if your contract was negotiated anywhere else,the odds of your being locked out were one in 9,512.

As I wrote above, I haven’t done the work either to verify or challenge these figures. But what follows in the article goes completely off the rails:

Nonprofit trustees running their own businesses behave as all businesses generally do. There is no evidence to the contrary. However, many of them have stopped functioning the way they do in their own establishments as they discharge their responsibilities in orchestras. This is substantial evidence of an aggressive industry leadership agenda.

We could play “count the assumptions.” but it’s simpler to demolish them one by one. First of all, the sentence “nonprofit trustees running their own business behave as all businesses generally do” assumes that most trustees run their own businesses. Some do, certainly, whether as actual owners or as management. But orchestra boards are generally quite a bit more diverse than that. There are rich philanthropists, funders, lawyers, and representatives of various formal constituencies as well as corporate types and small business owners. The sentence also assumes that those trustees who are involved in businesses all have the same philosophy of management, which is - at best - unlikely.

Then the author states that trustees all apply a different philosophy to governing their orchestras than they do to running their own enterprises, and that this is “substantial evidence of an aggressive industry leadership agenda.” Maybe the meaning of the word “evidence” has changed since I went to school, but I don’t think it ever meant “inferences based on dubious assumptions.” Reasoning based on this kind of “evidence” reminds me of nothing so much as the infamous underpants gnome business plan from South Park:

1. Collect underpants
2. ?
3. Profit!

In this case, the argument is:

1. lots of lockouts
2. ?
3. It’s the League!

But there’s more to the argument. The writer argues that “orchestra trustees don’t really have skin in the game.” That’s true in some senses at least - but it’s always been true. How does it explain the current spate of lockouts? And “orchestra management continues to be paid during lockouts - no skin in the game there either.” And nothing new here either - except that it’s not really true, as senior management is indeed evaluated on the success or failure of their labor relations strategies. Boards have time and time again dumped executive directors when they have retroactively disapproved of how they handled contract negotiations.

The writer ends by writing:

we don’t see a pattern of similar behavior in labor policies from nonprofit institutions…this is further evidence of an orchestral industry leadership agenda in labor policy.

The writer is clearly ignorant of one of the basic axioms of reasoning: Occam’s Razor, or the principle of parsimony, which requires that, for any phenomenon that could have multiple explanations, the one which makes the fewest assumptions is most likely to be correct. Even if it is true that orchestras are experiencing lockouts at a higher rate than other nonprofits, there are many possible explanations. The simplest (or most “parsiminous”) one would be that orchestras, being unionized to a uniquely high degree, are going to experience lockouts more than other nonprofits simply because non-unionized workforces aren’t subject to lockouts. Another explanation could be that orchestras are suffering financial hardship to a greater degree than other nonprofits. Both are simpler than the idea of a top-down conspiracy to lock out orchestras. Either could easily be correct. And, no doubt, there are other, equally simple, and equally likely, possible explanations for the current state of labor relations in our field.

An explanation that requires us to assume a conspiracy is not only too complex to be plausible, much less consistent with Occam’s Razor - it cannot, by itself, be evidence of such a conspiracy. And, of course, the writer cites no other evidence of such a conspiracy, because there is none.

There is, I believe, a better and more plausible explanation for the epidemic of lockouts in our business, and one that’s much simpler than positing the League acting in violation of both anti-trust law and its own stated policy, with orchestra boards and managements following like sheep. Orchestras which are demanding large cuts in musician compensation in contract negotiations are not likely to reach agreement with their musicians without a labor dispute of some kind. “Play and talk” agreements make sense for managements when the likely outcome is either a freeze or a wage increase, but they make no sense for a management seeking large cuts, for the obvious reason that management is left paying out what they believe are unsustainable rates of compensation with no end in sight. What’s left, in the absence of a settlement, is either a strike or a lockout, and a strike, in this situation, will only happen when the wage cuts are imposed by management, which poses significant legal and financial risks to them under federal labor law. The only thing left is the lockout.

The recently settled San Francisco Symphony dispute is a perfect example. While the parties were clearly not in agreement when the contract expired in November, management was not asking for huge cuts and the musicians were not asking for huge raises. So they agreed to continue negotiating while working under the terms of the old agreement. This was a position that worked for both parties, at least for a while; as management was proposing a freeze, they were paying salaries to the orchestra in line with what they had proposed, while the musicians could count on a retroactive payment, should they succeed in getting management to agree to a raise, and were not suffering in the short term by agreeing to accept the old salary rates for a few weeks or even months.

Eventually, of course, the musicians did strike, and after three weeks or so, there was a settlement. But there was no incentive, at any point, for management to lock out the musicians, and the musicians were obviously reluctant to strike. Most important was that there was a middle ground between the parties’ positions that, with mediation, was reachable in a reasonable time frame.

If lockouts were part of a League agenda, wouldn’t the management of the San Francisco Symphony have played this differently? The President and CEO of the SFS is not only on the League board, but is co-director of the League’s management training program. One would think that he would have been a key person in the planning and execution of the League’s “aggressive industry leadership agenda.” Either he didn’t get the memo (which he would have had to have been part of writing) - or there was no memo.

So why haven’t we seen lockouts to this degree before? Again, there is a simple explanation - we’ve never seen multiple institutions simultaneously asking for such large wage cuts before. The real question the AFM, and musicians, should be asking themselves is why so many orchestras have asked for such large cuts.

It’s a disturbing question, and the potential answers are not comforting to musicians. It’s much less disturbing to believe that there’s a conspiracy to lock musicians out and reduce their pay than to confront what might be issues that go to the heart of whether orchestras can continue in their current form. But finding the real answers will not be helped by the AFM, or musicians, continuing to believe in the boogeyman. The League is not the enemy. Regarding some potential explanations for orchestra dysfunction, it could well be an ally. And if it went away - which is clearly what some musicians, and some AFM staffers, hope -  it would likely be replaced by something even less to musicians’ liking - mostly likely a real league of employers that would have no interest in the views of musicians (or perhaps even board members).

The AFM and its musicians are right to push back against the wave of concessionary bargaining that we’ve seen the past few years. The first step in an effective pushback is to recognize what forces are - and aren’t - driving those demands.

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3 comments feed top ↑

  1. Pingback by Polyphonic.org - The Orchestra Musician Forum - Where no orchestra has gone before
    May 3, 2019 at 4:00 PM

    [...] were locked out for several weeks in the fall of 2012. And I missed the point of my own post, which was that the lockouts are only a consequence of the real problem, which is the depth of the [...]

  2. Comment by Robert Levine
    April 23, 2019 at 10:58 PM

    Rochelle Skolnick wrote:

    …not all have been affected to the same degree and some institutions have sought cuts clearly (sometimes wildly) disproportionate to the actual degree of the institution’s financial distress. That lack of proportionality suggests that something other than financial condition is driving bargaining postures for those institutions. What is it? Still other institutions have worsened their financial condition vis-a-vis labor costs by prioritizing non-labor expenditures (e.g., hall improvements) and (arguably artificially, given the timing of those decisions) constraining the labor budget as a result. What has driven those priorities? In the absence of coherent answers tied meaningfully to institutional health, it is tempting to suspect faulty and/or destructive ideology at work.

    It is indeed. And I’m sure in some places (most notably Minnesota) there is a strong ideological component. I’ve said that numerous times on this blog, in fact.

    But not all situations are Minnesota. I suspect Indianapolis was, in large part, a failure of governance; how else can one explain that a board tried to run an orchestra with essentially no senior staff? Atlanta was also a governance failure, at least in the sense that the Woodruff Center, rather than the board of the ASO, appeared to be the real decision-maker when it came to contract negotiations.

    I understand the anger about Minnesota. I share it. I’ve described the conduct of the board there in very harsh terms on this blog on multiple occasions. I’ve told people at the League I regard the MO board’s conduct as somewhere between immoral and criminal. But anger at Minnesota does not justify seeing plots and conspiracies where there are none.

    I think there are others who have jumped on the “new model” bandwagon as an expedient buzz-meme to justify down-sizing that, in turn, takes the pressure off boards and managements to perform their functions with excellence, with no accompanying institutional innovation.

    You’re absolutely right.

    Whether these trends–and they are clearly trends–are League-driven or whether the League has simply failed to provide the kind of leadership one would hope for from a service organization that collects such a substantial amount of dues from its members hardly matters. Either scenario is an indictment.

    That’s a little too pat. Of course it matters whether or not the League is driving an anti-musician agenda; that’s why the charge has been made by the AFM and ICSOM over and over again in various ways.

    The desire for “leadership” in this instance is, with respect, really a desire that the League take public positions regarding its member orchestras’ conduct that you agree with. If the League took a position of formal support for the Minnesota Orchestra board’s conduct, I doubt you’d consider that an example of “leadership,” although no doubt some managers and board members would. But why is one position “leadership” while the other isn’t?

    Part of me would love to see a formal denunciation by the League of that conduct. But, as a board member, I would have to vote against such a denunciation - because, in the end, it would go a long way to destroying the League’s ability to help anyone in this field.

    The decision whether or not to belong to the League, and to pay dues to it, is in the hands of managers and boards. What do you think their reaction would be to such a denunciation? I’m pretty confident it would be “why should I pay dues to an organization that might choose to publicly condemn how I’m running my orchestra some day?” More than a handful of those and the League’s ability to do its basic work of assisting orchestras by helping staffs and boards to be better would be severely compromised.

    The League itself talks about leading the field. But, in the end, I don’t think that’s the League’s role, nor do I think that anyone in the field would let it be an effective leader in setting policy. Our field - on both sides of the table - is allergic to top-down national leadership. What the League can do well is to help orchestras be managed and governed better.

    To use the SFS situation as evidence of an absence of a League lockout agenda is disingenuous and misses the point. As you note, the situation there was vastly different from those where the employer has sought large cuts and there simply was no middle ground on which the parties could arrive in a reasonable time frame. No one is suggesting that the League has promoted a no-matter-what lockout strategy.

    Actually, the SFS example was precisely on-point. Not only did Brent Assink not lock out the musicians, but he didn’t seek massive cuts either. But, as we both know, the two are intimately related. A lockout agenda makes less than zero sense without the economic incentives behind it. What sense would it make for the League to promote a lockout agenda unless it also believed in massive cuts? And, of course, there is no League position on the necessity of massive cuts either.

    What SFS shows is that even if one believes in a League “agenda,” it’s clear that even orchestras led by those in leadership positions at the League base their decisions on local factors. I know that the fact that Lowell Noteboom is both chair of the League board and on the SPCO board is cited as evidence by some in SSD that both Twin Cities lockouts are part of a League agenda. But Brent Assink is a key member of the League board as well; why is a very different approach to labor relations on his part viewed as irrelevant when assessing whether the League is pushing lockouts?

    For that matter, the only member of the League board to comment publicly on the Minnesota Orchestra lockout, except for some fairly anodyne comments by Jesse Rosen, has been me. And what I’ve written has been rather unkind to the Minnesota Orchestra board and management. So why doesn’t that matter in assessing the League’s position?

    The fact remains that the AFM assumes the League has an agenda when there is no evidence (as that word is defined in most dictionaries) to that effect and some evidence to the contrary. So the AFM chooses to ignore both, and simply believe what’s easiest and politically safest to believe.

    And to say that “no one is suggesting that the League has promoted a no-matter-what lockout strategy” is simply assembling a straw man to attack. When the IM publishes an article that begins

    The AFM staff and members have repeatedly expressed the opinion that the industry`s national association is driving a national labor relations lockout agenda. I sought empirical data to test this hypothesis. The charts and article below support this theory

    I think it’s fair to assume that the AFM is indeed suggesting that the League is promoting lockouts. The “no-matter-what” part of your statement is pure straw, and not something I ever accused the AFM of believing.

    So if it is the case, as you seem to assert, that the League has no particular interest in supporting the use of the lockout as a bludgeon to downsize labor agreements, the more important question in my mind is this: what exactly is the League doing to lead boards and managements away from this destructive and (in my opinion) misguided approach? What is the League doing to model excellence?

    The League is trying to help boards and staffs to better do their jobs. I’ve long been a strong advocate of the League not being involved in labor relations; I’ve never felt that the labor relations issues in our field were a result of a lack of ability to negotiate on either side. But an institution that is poorly run and/or poorly governed is eventually going to be unable to provide the kind of compensation that its musicians and staff need and want. At that point, no amount of skill at the table is going to solve the problem.

    In terms of “modeling excellence,” it’s hard for the League to do so when it’s not itself an orchestra. The League has a very good board, a very good staff, and operates in a fiscally responsible way. That’s about as far as it can go as a model. On the other hand, I think the League has done a very good of highlighting excellence in the field, although there are many ideas of what excellence really is.

  3. Comment by Rochelle Skolnick
    April 18, 2019 at 2:36 PM

    Robert, I think you are correct that the “root” question is why so many orchestra boards and managements are seeking such large cuts-cuts that are not, in many cases, rendered essential by the actual financial profiles of those institutions. No one would argue against the proposition that most, if not all, institutional finances in this sector have been adversely affected by the larger economic picture. But not all have been affected to the same degree and some institutions have sought cuts clearly (sometimes wildly) disproportionate to the actual degree of the institution’s financial distress. That lack of proportionality suggests that something other than financial condition is driving bargaining postures for those institutions. What is it? Still other institutions have worsened their financial condition vis-a-vis labor costs by prioritizing non-labor expenditures (e.g., hall improvements) and (arguably artificially, given the timing of those decisions) constraining the labor budget as a result. What has driven those priorities? In the absence of coherent answers tied meaningfully to institutional health, it is tempting to suspect faulty and/or destructive ideology at work.

    Another thing I agree with you about is the danger of over-generalizing. The industry is not monolithic. I think there are some leaders on the management side of the table who have a genuine interest in ensuring the continued vitality of their institutions and sincerely believe that effort requires a rethinking of traditional models-an exercise they are performing with mindfulness and respect for the value of what they already have. I think there are others who have jumped on the “new model” bandwagon as an expedient buzz-meme to justify down-sizing that, in turn, takes the pressure off boards and managements to perform their functions with excellence, with no accompanying institutional innovation.

    Whether these trends-and they are clearly trends-are League-driven or whether the League has simply failed to provide the kind of leadership one would hope for from a service organization that collects such a substantial amount of dues from its members hardly matters. Either scenario is an indictment. I have looked over the programming for this year’s League conference and I am impressed by how little it seems to me to acknowledge the current realities of the field and how little it appears to provide in the way of modeling excellence. I know you feel the League is not the enemy but neither has it shown itself to be a particularly effective ally. Just as I’d always rather deal with truly skillful opposing counsel, I’d love to see the League assume a leadership position with regard to genuine excellence, even if I disagreed with the specifics of its stance.

    I also have to quarrel a little with some of your assumptions. Joel’s piece, which I personally found enlightening, only considered data from employers with collective bargaining obligations. To the extent he made comparative observations with regard to either the for-profit or non-profit sector, I believe his analysis controlled for that variable so the comparative lack of collective bargaining in other parts of the non-profit sector (if that is, in fact, the case) would not explain the disparity in lockout occurrences.

    You are of course correct that there could be several explanations for the prevalence of lockouts in our industry. But you are also correct that when an orchestra management seeks large cuts and is unwilling to move from that position, the end game is likely to be a lockout, simply as a matter of labor law and institutional psychology. The alternative is a drive to impasse and implementation of an offer that includes the cuts-a risky proposition for the employer, as you observe. To use the SFS situation as evidence of an absence of a League lockout agenda is disingenuous and misses the point. As you note, the situation there was vastly different from those where the employer has sought large cuts and there simply was no middle ground on which the parties could arrive in a reasonable time frame. No one is suggesting that the League has promoted a no-matter-what lockout strategy. But what is absolutely clear is that in at least some institutions there is a desire to drastically reduce musician compensation for reasons that are opaque. That desire naturally leads to lockouts, given the complexion of our industry as you describe it.

    So if it is the case, as you seem to assert, that the League has no particular interest in supporting the use of the lockout as a bludgeon to downsize labor agreements, the more important question in my mind is this: what exactly is the League doing to lead boards and managements away from this destructive and (in my opinion) misguided approach? What is the League doing to model excellence?