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Colorado and the AFM

0 Robert Levine

The invaluable Norman Lebrecht once again breaks a story:

Musicians in the Colorado Symphony Orchestra have filed to decertify from their union, the American Federation of Musicians., from representing them in contract negotiations.

The causes of dissension are obscure and both sides are staying tight-lipped, but a petition has been filed here and a vote is expected soon.

The move is part of a growing disaffection in classical orchestras with the AFM under the flamboyant leadership of Ray Hair. Last year, the Charleston Symphony Musicians left the AFM and we hear of further troubles brewing in Montreal and Los Angeles.

As sometimes happens with Norman’s breaking stories, however, his analysis is flawed. Montreal and Charleston have nothing to do with Ray Hair, and I doubt very much that Colorado does either.

Historically, orchestras have left the AFM when one of two reasons -  dissatisfaction with national media agreements or dissatisfaction with their local -  meets the catalyst of an energetic internal activist with an agenda. Seattle’s departure in 1988 is a perfect example, as has been extensively documented. Discontent with what was then known as “Phono Labor,” the agreement under which all recordings were made in the AFM, gave an opening to a few within the Seattle Symphony who believed that symphonic musicians needed their own union. Those few - with the inadvertent assistance of some local and national AFM officers - brilliantly exploited that discontent and formed their own union. The AFM learned quickly from that debacle and reformed itself to the extent that virtually no other orchestras followed Seattle into that new union.

Charleston was a different story, but the dynamics were the same, as I wrote about here. Montreal has been a mess for a long time, as those who follow the AFM know. There has been tension between the Montreal local and the AFM’s Canadian office for years, mirroring in part the centuries-old tension between Anglophone and Francophone Canadians. But there have been more recent difficulties as well; the Montreal Symphony strike in 2005 left financial wounds on the Local that have not only lingered but have been the source of action and reaction at several AFM conventions.

So what’s the problem in Colorado? Reading between the lines of one knowledgeable comment on Norman’s post, it appears that this one is about media as well. I’m not sure why that should be; the AFM’s new Integrated Media Agreement, which covers symphonic electronic media, looks to be a decent agreement with considerable local flexibility - which can easily be spiced up by the addition of large doses of EMG, of  course. It’s possible that Local officers or 1501 Broadway have been overly heavy-handed when dealing with the Colorado Symphony musicians over this issue, as was the case in Seattle, but that wouldn’t be the root cause.

One thing this is almost certainly not about, however, is “growing disaffection in classical orchestras with the AFM under the flamboyant leadership of Ray Hair.” There are those who like Ray’s “flamboyance” and those who don’t. But orchestra musicians have more sense than to do something as important as decertify their union over the AFM President’s style. Ray Hair, unlike his predecessor, has been very careful to keep the AFM’s Player Conferences on board. If orchestras were going to leave the AFM because of stuff that 1501 Broadway did, they would have left in droves in the Noughties. They didn’t.

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