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
In this case, the argument is:
1. lots of lockouts
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.