Thursday night, negotiations between the locked out musicians of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) and the management of the Woodruff Arts Center (WAC) hit a rough patch.
The two sides had agreed to mediation, and with the assistance of federal mediators talks had taken place for several days over the past week. Unfortunately, things unraveled and the WAC ultimately withdrew from the talks. Shortly thereafter, the ASO musicians released a statement, which reads:
WAC WALKS AWAY FROM ASO TALKS
Last night just before 11:00 PM, the Woodruff Arts Center representatives for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (WAC/ASO) walked away from the table after three days and almost 40 hours of talks ably mediated by Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service Commissioner Rich Giacolone, leaving the musicins at the Buckhead venue the FMCS arranged. Although some significant progress was made in health care — and further time together may well have resulted in a complete agreement — the WAC leadership continued steadfastly to refuse to support the need of a world-class Orchestra for a minimum fixed number of musicians. While the orchestra has been reduced by departures to only 77 Musicians, despite the required contractual complement of 88, the WAC refuses even to commit to 77 Musicians.
The ASOPA Committee volunteered to assist in health care cost savings by making a radical shift to a different type of plan that will save the WAC/ASO at least 25% — over a quarter of a million dollars — annually over the previous plan, which was canceled by WAC/ASO management last month three weeks after it locked out its musicians on September 7. The Musicians also proposed an annual compensation package which, in the final year of the proposed agreement (2018), would have the musicians earning $1,043 less per year than the compensation they earned during the 2011-12 season.
The ASOPA Committee has worked tirelessly — and will continue to do so — with no other intent than to achieve a fair agreement that protects the Orchestra’s stature and allows it to return to making music on the stage where it belongs. The Musicians are available to meet and are certain that an agreement is entirely possible that will end the heinous lockout to which the musicians have been subjected. “We deeply appreciate the Orchestra’s Board members and other supporters who are working to raise funds and who understand and appreciate the fight to maintain the artistic quality that has made the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra one of the world’s great symphony orchestras, and Atlanta’s cultural flagship,” stated ASOPA President Paul Murphy.
Attached for your information is a copy of ASOPA’s last proposal dated October 23, 2014 to the WAC/ASO.
Paul Murphy, President ASOPA
Daniel Laufer, Vice President ASOPA
Facebook: ATL Symphony Musicians
In the wake of this announcement, several members of the WAC leadership team made statements of their own. Unfortunately, each and every one of these statements was bizarre, and they do not reflect well on the WAC or its leaders. I see that just as I was posting this blog entry, a full announcement from the WAC became public. I’ll comment on it shortly, but in the meantime, let me comment on the bewildering statements the WAC made in the press over the last 24 hours.
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Statement 1. The first problematic statement came when the WAC tried to dispute the the musicians’ claim that they had “walked out” of talks. According to the statement printed in ArtsAtl:
Management promptly disputed the claim, countering that its representatives had simply adjourned in order to consider the union’s latest proposal, and accused musicians of deliberately misrepresenting the situation. “To say we ‘walked away’ is not the truth and the union knows it,” said Randy Donaldson, a WAC spokesman. … No further meetings have been scheduled for next week.
So… to contradict charges that they had deliberately scuttled discussions and walked away, the WAC states no… they had simply “adjourned” to consider the latest proposal.
That seems quite a fine line to draw—I’m not sure how one side abruptly leaving negotiations and making no statement of if or when they would ever return qualifies as “adjourning” rather than “walking away.”
Although I wasn’t in the meeting room and have no first-hand knowledge about what actually transpired, a moment’s worth of thought about this statement suggests that it’s false. It flies in the face of what we know about communications technology, negotiations, human nature… and to be blunt, common sense.
Why on earth would the WAC negotiators need to adjourn to discuss the proposal? Surely since they had called for mediation, they knew what the process would entail. And just as surely, they would have sent a representative who was well-versed in what the WAC would or could accept. And if an offer was made that lay outside the negotiator’s comfort zone, he or she would be able to text, email, or call someone in a position of authority and get a near-instantaneous reply. I mean, surely the WAC has created contingency plans, cost analyses, projections, and such… and could run the numbers of any proposed plan, right? Especially since everybody has been meeting for many days by now.
How much time would they need?
And why simply walk away when the end is so near? How many times have breakthroughs in negotiations occurred late at night or past the “absolute” deadline? Per the musicians, there was a great deal of progress already, so why just… stop? At the very least, why not make a clear provision to reconvene when everyone is fresh in the morning? Again, there are many points of agreement and all the characters are assembled, including federal mediators. Why pull the plug?
Another thing. How is it that self-proclaimed business elites of the WAC are so completely incapable of securing a deal? If this was a negotiation with a business competitor, would the business elites running the WAC board be so cavalier about the progress? Would they have walked away so close to finalizing the deal? Would they have been so incapable of making a quick decision, and instead asked for an indefinite amount of time to huddle up and discuss things?
The only thing I can think of is that the WAC simply doesn’t want a resolution. Or their business savvy is vastly overrated.
Statement 2. In explaining the reasoning why the WAC won’t agree to a set number of musicians, lead negotiator Tom Kilpatrick said, “The ASOPA committee made it crystal clear during the past few days it would rather have no orchestra at all if it cannot have a larger orchestra with a guaranteed number of players. ASO simply cannot agree to spend money we do not have.”
The first sentence first. Kilpatrick seems to be making a false distinction. If the WAC doesn’t commit to a specific size, it could still very well end up with “no orchestra.” I can understand what the the musicians are afraid of—without a guaranteed number of players, the WAC could reduce the ASO to a house band of only 10 players or so, and hire freelancers (at reduced salaries, with no benefits) to fill out the ranks. It could transform the ASO into an ad hoc band for pops presentations and corporate events… and based on the WAC’s actions and statements to date, this feels like a very real possibility.
The ASO musicians have been very vocal in explaining why the guaranteed number is so important to them: as Paul Murphy has explained: “We cannot field the great Atlanta Symphony as we know it and love it with 77 musicians. The majority of the repertoire that we perform, to present the variety of styles and music that we do, you have to have those numbers.”
Thus, Kilpatrick is being astonishing mendacious as he tries to whitewash this fact.
And let’s take Kilpatrick’s final sentence, too. It is possible that the ASO doesn’t have any money. But there’s a larger issue. Again and again, the musicians have raised serious questions about the WAC finances, and how money has been allocated to its component groups including the ASO. It seems that many times over the past two years, incoming revenue that could (or arguably, should) have gone to the ASO was allocated instead to the High Art Museum or the Alliance Theatre. Meanwhile, the ASO was shouldered with disproportionate debt.
Perhaps Kilpatrick is correct that the ASO doesn’t have money. But since the WAC has created the situation where the ASO was strapped for cash, his comment is disingenuous at best. It also blurs the responsibilities and financial actions of the WAC as a whole.
Statement 3: Tom Kilpatrick has another zinger. He writes, “We believe the union threatens to bring an end to our great orchestra.”
This is astonishing. I’m curious as to why he thinks that “the union” is the problem. Mr. Kilpatrick, let’s assume for the moment that there was no union, and you simply announced to the assembled, individual musicians that they were going to have to take sacrificial pay cuts. Plus, you were going to reduce the size of the orchestra to whatever size you saw fit, and reduce the length of the season.
Do you suppose they would have responded with joy and thanksgiving? And that everything would have turned out well for the orchestra?
“The union” has nothing to do with your punitive proposal that will cause real financial pain. “The union” has nothing to do with the fact that musicians are losing their insurance. “The union” has nothing to do with plummeting morale. “The union” has nothing to do with the fact that musicians are looking at their situation and deciding to leave the group for other opportunities.
The problem isn’t that “the union” is somehow blocking you from implementing your proposal—the problem is the proposal itself.
Statement 4. WAC president and CEO Virginia Hepner sent an email to the WAC Governing Board and the ASO board’s Executive Committee, informing them “…work stoppage will continue. Barring the union accepting our latest proposal, we will soon be forced to announce a cancellation of more of the Symphony season.”
It is astonishing that Hepner has no sense of agency, essentially declaring that the WAC is helpless against the bitter winds of fate.
“Work stoppage?” I’m sorry, but it is insulting that Hepner uses that term. This isn’t a passive “stoppage,” but a case where the WAC has deliberately locked the musicians out, stopped their pay, and cancelled their insurance. The musicians want to play. They want to continue working. But the WAC is unilaterally blocking them from doing so, in order to inflict such economic pain that the musicians will be forced to accept concessions they would never normally agree to.
At least the WAC should have the honesty, and courage of its convictions, to call this action what it is: a lockout.
But the helpless act continues. Again with the passive voice, the WAC “will be forced to announce a cancellation.” Why? Under whose authority? Many, many people have called on the WAC to allow talk-and-play, where the performances continue under the terms of the just-expired contract while negotiations continue. Again, the WAC should at least be honorable and upfront about what it is doing and why. Even without making this sentence inflammatory, it could at least be honest and state “…we will soon cancel more of the Symphony season.”
Because that is, after all, what it will be doing.
Statement 5: The Grand Finale. The most jaw-dropping statement of all also came from Hepner, who stated: “The national musicians’ union believes it can divide and conquer and then intimidate our boards into imprudent decisions through its acrimony and misrepresentations. This has been their go-to tactic in labor negotiations for decades. We will not give in to those efforts.”
In truth, I could devote an entire blog entry to these three sentences. They reveal a profound lack of understanding about… well, not to be snarky, but about the real world in which we all live.
What national union is she referring to? Who is in it? Who runs it? Where is it located? What specifically is it doing? What is its plan? How is it implementing its strategy? How does it enforce compliance? How does it retaliate, if crossed?
And what evidence does she have?
I mean, this is as absurd as claiming that the Freemasons and Illuminati are running the Vatican.
But she goes on to mention that this national cabal of shadowy agents is trying to “divide,” “conquer,” and “intimidate” boards everywhere.
But… the boards ultimately have all the power. The WAC board is locking out the musicians, not the other way around. The musicians are going without pay or insurance… how are any of the board members affected in any way? How are these titans of industry intimidated by anything? And how on earth are they about to be “conquered?” They are going through work and life untouched by this lockout. Are they upset about unfavorable coverage in the press? Or the fact that bloggers such as myself are challenging their statements? Good heavens… I’m astonished such powerful community leaders are so fragile. Do they get this flustered in their business dealings, too? Has none of them ever experienced bad publicity?
My sense is that if there are any divisions among the board members, they have happened because some individuals are taking a longer, more holistic view of the situation than others. They’ve come to the conclusion that the WAC board’s actions are dangerous, counter-productive, and short-sighted.
But since everyone knows each other, why don’t you ask them, rather than making grandiose statements that don’t make sense?
And I’m curious as to where Hepner finds evidence that unionized musicians have brutalizing poor, unfortunate boards “for decades.” I mean, is that what happened two years ago when the WAC board previously locked out the ASO musicians? I’m sorry, but the trend for the last decade has been for orchestra boards to unilaterally lockout musicians to force sacrificial cuts in pay and other compensation. Not the other way around.
Ms. Hepner, if you know of a single case where an orchestral union (or any union, for that matter) brutally forced concessions from a board of directors, please let me know.
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I could go on, but I think you get the point. I’m stunned by the rank amateurism being displayed here. And I can’t say I’m looking forward to reading the full statement the WAC has just posted….