One of the more intriguing aspects to the psychology of our industry is a general propensity to conspiratorial thinking. It’s not hard to find amongst musicians; the widespread belief that
the League of American Orchestras A National Service Organization is behind all our woes is the best-known example, but conspiracy theories fester within orchestras as well - although, as the example of the Minnesota Orchestra proves, not all conspiracy theories are fantasies.
The reasons for this conspiratorial bias remain difficult for me to figure out. Years ago, in an article I co-wrote with my father, we hypothesized that orchestra musicians lacked autonomy in their work lives to a highly unusual degree for such skilled professionals, which produced several undesirable side-effects:
…There is another, more subtle effect of this chronic lack of control on orchestra musicians: infantilization. Forced to play the roles of children, musicians can behave childishly. Musicians who, when not at work, are perfectly responsible adults, can regress to the level of five-year olds at work, especially when the conductor is even less like the mythic omniscient father figure than is the norm for conductors. Moreover, these musicians tend to view their world, much as a child might, as a mysterious and threatening place. The paranoia that some orchestra musicians exhibit towards managers and conductors, and even towards those of their colleagues who serve on workplace committees, is a consequence of this world view. Yet the subjects of this generalized paranoia are not some anonymous “they” off at corporate headquarters; they are people who, on a daily basis, stand in front of these musicians, answer their questions, and find the money to pay them.
I was surprised to discover, after getting to know a number of managers and board members of other orchestras over the years, that there is a mirror to the common belief amongst musicians that A National Service Organization is behind a plot to make our lives miserable. That mirror image is the belief that orchestra musicians would be happy and smiling if it weren’t for The Union. In many cases, that belief is sincerely held. One might wonder about the sincerity of the latest public expression of this paranoia, however, which happened in the context of another failed effort to resolve the War on the Northern Front:
Doug Kelley, a member of the management negotiating team for the Minnesota Orchestra, said his side floated the idea of a reconciliation taskforce of board members, management representatives and musicians to discuss a vision for the future of the organization. That didn’t go over well.
Even in pairs, neither side was in the mood to surrender fundamental positions.
“Without getting too specific, we felt that we kept going back to talking points,” said Tim Zavadil, one of the musicians’ representatives. “And we weren’t interested in talking points. We really want to have a conversation about what the vision is for the orchestra to determine how we move forward.”
…Doug Kelley sees something else behind the musicians’ stance. He believes Minnesota is being used by the national union to draw a line.
“I think the reason that Minnesota is such a battleground,” he said, “is because the International union has said they are really trying to change the business model in Minnesota and we can’t let that happen.”
Kelley said that is the basis behind “stonewalling” by the musicians.
Just as it’s hard to explain to musicians why managements take similar actions in similar situations without direction from A National Service Organization, it’s hard to explain to board members why musicians taking similar positions in response to similar demands from managements is not done at the urging of our Union Bosses. Ironically, though, the explanation is the same in both cases, and it’s a very simple one: neither the National Service Organization nor the Union Bosses have the credibility or the clout to enforce their will on their members.
Perhaps it’s that slightly embarrassing reality that explains why neither the
National Service Organization League nor the AFM pushes back hard against the conspiracy theories. Both organizations would love to have at least the moral authority to have their recommendations accepted as gospel by their members. But the reality is that both the League and the AFM are in the position of the 19th century French politician Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin, who is reputed to have said “there go the people: I must follow them, for I am their leader.”
The folks on the ground in orchestra board rooms and management suites, as well as the musicians on stage, are quite willing to listen to the League or the AFM respectively - so long as they like what they hear. When they don’t, the long-cherished doctrine known within the AFM as “local autonomy,” but equally alive on the employers’ side, quickly asserts itself, and the copy of Symphony or the International Musician containing whatever the musicians or the managements or the boards don’t want to do is filed under “Recycling.”
But of course I would say that, wouldn’t I? I’m one of the Union Bosses, albeit a low-ranking one. But I’m also on the board of the National Service Organization - which makes me well-positioned to call bullsh%it on both conspiracy theories. Can I prove it’s bullsh%it? Of course not; it’s impossible to prove a negative. I can’t prove that League President & CEO Jesse Rosen doesn’t spend his mornings on conference calls with the major managers and micro-managing the demise of the full-time orchestra job, just as I can’t prove that AFM President Ray Hair doesn’t have compromising photos of all the members of the Minnesota Orchestra and is blackmailing them to vote unanimously to “stonewall” management. But both seem implausible to me, and should seem equally implausible to anyone with an ounce of sense or knowledge of how real institutions, and real people, function.
There are, however, some suggestive case studies that strongly indicate the absence of any top-down direction on either side of the table in our field. My favorite is one about the League that I tell to try to convince musicians that orchestra managers really don’t want the League running things. I’ll save that for another post. But there are case studies about the willingness of musicians to follow the lead of Union Bosses that are on-point as well.
One is the decades-long effort by the AFM to convince orchestra musicians that electronic media guarantees (EMGs) were bad negotiating practice and bad trade unionism. This effort started shortly after the first EMGs were negotiated into orchestra contracts; if memory serves, St. Louis and the National Symphony were the pioneers in the early 1970s. It ended around 10 years ago, after many, if not most, ICSOM orchestras had negotiated EMGs into their contracts and the AFM finally figured out that no one in the orchestras cared what it thought about EMGs. But a recent situation is even more telling.
The Charleston Symphony musicians agreed in December 2010 to a new contract - after being out of work due to a management shut-down of the orchestra in March 2010 - that reduced the number of full-time positions from 48 to 24. Worse yet, there were still 36 musicians on the payroll, so 12 of those simply lost their jobs, without their consent, and were compensated with a severance package consisting of $5,000.
Needless to say, the Union was not at all happy about this; according to what I’ve been told, the resulting bad feelings between the union (national and local both) and the musicians were an underlying cause of the recent decertification of the AFM by the remaining members of the Charleston Symphony. And the union was entirely right to be upset; to the best of my knowledge, there had never been a mass elimination of orchestra positions occupied by full-time musicians since the dawn of the modern orchestral era in the US. Talk about a threatening “change in the business model” that the union would fight tooth-and-nail; it makes reducing salaries by 40% seem positively unimaginative.
But the Charleston musicians negotiated that settlement and ratified it, and, according to the way the AFM operates, that was the end of the matter, even though what the musicians did was anathema to both the union and the orchestra musician community. Their right to negotiate and ratify a truly awful settlement was not seriously disputed by anyone.
I’ve heard it suggested that the Minnesota Orchestra board members believe that Ray Hair has sent the MO musicians on a kamikaze mission for the benefit of the union. It is absolutely true that the AFM has been supportive of the MO musicians; that’s what unions are supposed to do. And it’s absolutely true that the AFM views this dispute as nationally important, although Mr Kelly’s characterization of the problem as “the AFM not liking a new business model” is only true if “paying people less” is equivalent to “a new business model.” That sounds like a pretty old business model to me. What the AFM - not to mention its orchestral musician members - doesn’t like is a huge salary reduction demanded by an institution that has the capacity to raise boatloads of cash when it chooses to.
But the notion that the Minnesota Orchestra musicians are dupes of the AFM, and that all would be well had the Union Bosses not weighed in, is not only false; it provides yet another excuse for the Minnesota Orchestra board to avoid confronting the single most salient fact of this dispute, which is that they have produced one of the epic non-profit failures of recent times.
The Minnesota Orchestra is not only a great orchestra; for decades it was a great orchestral institution as well. With Osmo Vänskä building on the work done by previous music directors, no orchestral institution in the US did better at bringing great orchestral performances to its community and representing its community to the the world. And, until the arrival of Michael Henson, it had done so while paying its bills, balancing its books, and generally avoiding messy public disputes.
But no longer; now it has failed to produce concerts for a year, with no realistic prospects for producing any this season either. It has raised a ton of money for a hall that remains dark and will stay dark for the foreseeable future. Worst of all, the board completely committed to a risky and confrontational labor relations strategy that has failed in the most spectacular fashion; a strategy that has not only produced an indefinite cessation of its core product but has produced serious talk amongst politicians of the city terminating the lease on its hall and the state taking its endowment way, as well as highly unfavorable international attention to the Twin Cities as a community. This is not common-or-garden governance failure; this is failure of world-historical dimensions. It’s the non-profit equivalent of Napoleon invading Russia without winter clothing.
If I had been part of a board that produced that kind of failure, I too would desperately want to believe that someone else - anyone else - was to blame.