Thoughts for Labor Day: The Future of Labor Negotiations in the World of Classical Music

It’s Labor Day! And of course, I have lined up time in my hammock to read a good book, and will be indulging later in the obligatory cook out.

But given the holiday, I wanted to take a few minutes to reflect on the labor disputes that have been afflicting the world of classical music as of late.

Since 2008, there has been a clear pattern of work stoppages taking place in such cities as Atlanta, Detroit, Indianapolis, Louisville, Minneapolis, and St. Paul. And it looks like a new dispute is brewing again in Atlanta, too. In each of these cases, artistic managements sought to weaken the power of organized labor in general, and to do so specifically by extracting significant concessions from the unionized workers and/or musicians.

To date, this model has been a disaster.  Managements who have tried this approach have inflicted significant—and needless—damage on their respective organizations. But it is also notable that they have not been particularly successful in achieving most of their stated goals.

With that in mind, I’d like to take a few minutes to examine this model, and share my thoughts and predictions about the course of labor negotiations in the future.

* * *

Unions as the Bad Guy

One commonality in the labor disputes of the last few years (if not longer) has been managements’ attempts to disparage the musicians and other workers as being part of some sinister, amorphous “union.” This was a tactic repeatedly used in the Minnesota Orchestra dispute—the word “union” was frequently used as a slur, and certain board members claimed that the musicians were in the thrall of a fearsome union that was using the musicians as pawns in a larger plot. This went on even though it was pointed out repeatedly that it was the Orchestra musicians themselves who were calling the shots, with the union only providing logistical and moral support.

A similar situation occurred at the Met; when Gelb and his supporters do finger a specific cause for the Met’s problems, they invariably choose to scapegoat unions with their “extravagant salaries.” In his interview with Paula Zahn, for example, he repeatedly deflected any blame off of him personally, and placed it squarely on the shoulders of the unions. And when Zahn challenged some of his answers with publicly-available information, he waved his hand and accused her of falling for union propaganda.

First, I feel I must say unequivocally that being part of a union is not a bad thing, so it is a bit bizarre to toss out the term as a pejorative.

More to the point. As I’ve said repeatedly, the major problem with this approach is it clearly misses the point. The notion of the “unions” interfering with things is not just untrue, it a red herring.  The real issue is that the organizations in question are orchestras and opera companies… meaning performing music is the reason these organizations exist.  And therefore, the workers in question are critically important to their success.

In other words, this isn’t a staffing of personnel issue—the managements are dangerously tinkering with their product.

But I also suspect that the tactic might not be effective going forward. It might have worked in 2009 when the economy was in free-fall, and people were scared about their financial future. But I find it harder to believe it will still be as effective in 2014. As I’ve argued before, unions are much less likely to be seen as a dangerous threat right now. Union-busting politicians such as Scott Walker are running into problems around the country. New York just elected a progressive mayor. Perhaps this approach will still work in the so-called red states where organized labor is viewed less favorably, but even there I think the tide has clearly turned—particularly if musicians are successful in pointing out that they are the product.

Something else that has happened in the recent labor disputes, and very well may undermine union-bashing as a tactic in the future: musicians have been doing a much better job of introducing (or re-introducing) themselves to the public as individuals. In both New York and Minneapolis, the musicians and workers used websites, social media, and other networking mechanisms to tell their stories and show how they make the art happen. This was marvelous—it took the labor dispute out of the abstract and made it about friends, neighbors, and professionals. We could see how they as individuals added value to the overall product; this not only built new support for the art form, but effectively undermined managements’ arguments.

I hope this trend catches on, as it humanizes the art form. But it also is a strong counter to managements’ anti-union rhetoric.


Zero-Sum Negotiations

It is curious that in both Minnesota and New York, this contentious round of labor negotiations stood out in stark contrast to earlier cycles. Minnesota had a much easier round of negotiations in 2007, and the Met hadn’t had a labor stoppage in a generation.

This round, however, was ginned up from the beginning… and from my perspective, much of the hostility seemed to be part of a management-driven strategy.

In Minnesota, board documents revealed that the stage for contentious negotiations was being laid back in 2009, with financial records being manipulated to show budget surplus for the state legislature, and catastrophic deficits for the musicians. There has been much speculation that board members were encouraged (or pressured) to slow their giving in the lead up to the lockout, to put the budgetary problems in high relief. Those who came forward to try and find a compromise were silenced; famously, the Minnesota Orchestral Association (MOA) rejected the deal put together by their hand-chosen negotiator, Senator George Mitchell, because doing so would cause them to “lose leverage.”

A similar situation played out for most of the summer with the Met, where Peter Gelb suggested that the organization was only a few years from bankruptcy and his offer was the only thing that bring the finances back into line.

But for all the tough talk, the managements ultimately had to back down. That is the problem with setting up a zero-sum negotiation—someone will lose. And in both Minneapolis and New York, it was the managements that took the biggest hits.

As this model hasn’t really been successful, I’d warn administrations from trying to implement it elsewhere. I imagine organizational leaders think this approach makes them look decisive, serious, and tough… but in the end, a far better way to look decisive, serious, and tough is to actually succeed. Faced with an existential threat, orchestra members and their supporters become galvanized, gather up considerable sources of support and fight back. And increasingly, they’re winning.

But the damage to the organization is considerable, even when the management side “wins.” Choosing a zero-sum strategy to labor talks almost guarantees that the organization as a whole will take a pounding, which can take years to fully heal.

So why not take a broader approach? Why not try a different method, one that seeks collaborative solutions? All sides can still strongly advocate for favored solutions… but a collaborative approach essentially guarantees that a substantial portion of the organization will not inherently lose.


Negotiating the Implementation, not the Terms

This point relates somewhat to the point above. One of the defining features of the Minnesota Orchestra labor dispute was that management stated that it had to cut $5 million from the budget, and those cuts would come from the musicians’ compensation. The MOA insisted that that $5 was non-negotiable… it would only negotiate the way the cuts were implemented. When the musicians countered by insisting the $5 million total did indeed need to be negotiated—or that the MOA had to at least explain how that number was reached—the MOA accused the musicians of not negotiating.

Likewise, the Met approached talks by saying that it had to impose cuts of 16-17% on the unionized workers’ compensation, and at least initially seemed to insist that that number was not negotiable. A similar process played out with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and other ensembles over the last couple of years.

This process was, on the face of it, absurd—these aren’t negotiations.  As I mentioned in my blog, the fact that a cashier asks you if you are paying for an item by cash, check, or credit card does not mean you are negotiating the item’s cost.

More to the point, I think the process was ineffective, and I’d be surprised if other organizations continue to utilize the method. In both Minneapolis and New York it was not clear how that “final number” was determined, making it seem arbitrary. Moreover, other stakeholders proposed other ways that cuts could be made, or suggested creative solutions to raising funds.

This is what both sides should be doing. At the end of the day, the proper solution is not to land on a fixed budget number, but to find proper support to carry out the organization’s mission. There is not one right answer, but a plethora of possible answers, and everything needs to be on the table.

Plus, involving all stakeholders in the search for possible answers builds engagement across the organization, which will help ensure success.


Death of the Art Form

Curiously, in both Minnesota and New York, the management was actively pushing the notion that their respective art forms were dying; consequently, a comprehensive overall of the overall artistic product was in order. In Minneapolis, the MOA cut the performance calendar severely (under the auspices of bringing their product into “alignment” with demand), and further advocated that “unpopular” classical concerts be replaced with pops concerts and outside rentals. In New York, Peter Gelb went on a media tour that repeatedly claimed that opera was in decline, and unable to attract new, younger audience members.

I can understand these actions as part of a negotiation tactic. Clearly, this was part of a plan by the administrations to demonstrate that their respective organizations were hemorrhaging money and audience members, and severe cuts were therefore absolutely crucial to the survival of their institutions. But it seems clear that this was more than a limited-time tactic—the managements really did seem to believe that classical music and opera were dying. This brought condemnation from peers in the industry, and raised significant questions about why arts leaders would choose to work in a field that they thought had no future.  Ultimately, this didn’t help with the managements’ credibility.

But there were other problems with this approach, too. In both the Minnesota Orchestra and Met cases, the managements’ positions were undermined by real-life events on the ground. A year into the Minnesota Orchestra dispute, a number of organizations released data that was completely at odds with the case the administration had been forcefully making. Giving USA noted that corporate and individual giving to the arts had fully recovered from the 2008 recession by 2013, and reached their highest levels in 5 years. A number of orchestras around the country announced record ticket sales and donations, including orchestras in Cleveland, Houston, San Diego, Kansas City and more. Likewise, many local arts organizations in Minneapolis reported strong finances, indicating that they had recovered from the recession.  This begged the question: if other groups were thriving in the exact same environment, why was the Minnesota Orchestra unable to succeed?

Similarly for the Met, over the course of the last few months a steady stream of info has come to light showing opera companies around the country were also doing well.

In all cases, this good news made it difficult to take the managements’ doom-and-gloom scenarios seriously. It was never a case that since the Lyric Opera was having a good year, everything throughout the industry was fine; it was a case that many organizations were able to thrive in the current climate, so failure was not inevitable.  As a result, many were forced to conclude that the Met’s problems (or those of the Minnesota Orchestra before it) were its own.

And now, both the Met and the Minnesota Orchestra themselves serve as counterexamples against this kind of argument—if the managements in these two disputes couldn’t make this argument stick… why should we believe anyone else?

* * *

All in all, the labor negotiation model for the last five years or so has been a miserable failure.  This new model has not succeeded in reshaping labor relationships, and has led to significant damage in every organization that has implemented it.  Given its poor track record, I think arts organizations would be foolish to try this same approach in the future.

Isn’t it time for a new model?




2 thoughts on “Thoughts for Labor Day: The Future of Labor Negotiations in the World of Classical Music

  1. “Similarly for the Met, over the course of the last few months a steady stream of info has come to light showing opera companies around the country were also doing well.”

    There is no such “stream of information.” There are anecdotes about anomalies. The “stream of information” indicates that among the major opera companies in the United States, ticket sales are down. Some companies have changed their programming (reducing numbers of performances, narrowing repertoire, adding concerts and musical theater presentations) and have at least for the moment managed to keep their sales flat and their budgets balanced. That is not the same thing as “doing well.”


    • Thanks again for the comment, and here are some thoughts of my own:

      “There are anecdotes about anomalies.”

      I agree that the plural of anecdote is not data. But at the same time, my point stands. Some opera companies have failed, but others have done well. And one recent survey has shown that 226 opera companies formed in the US since 2000. Anne Midgette has shown that opera festivals are enjoying great success, and made the excellent point: “Cars are not in trouble every time that automobile manufacturers are in crisis. Similarly, classical music is not in trouble; opera is not in trouble; the news is not in trouble; religion is not in trouble.” As she goes on to say, yes, there are still problems with certain institutions presenting these things. But in those cases, it’s useful to take a hard, detailed look at what the problems are, and for the individual organizations to correct them. But that’s not the same as claiming that nobody can make opera or classical music work anymore.

      And that is my point here. In both Minnesota and New York, key managers argued that classical music was in terminal decline, and sweeping changes were necessary for the organizations that provided them to survive. But the fact that large opera companies and orchestras are having success artistically and financially (yes, balancing one’s budget is a success) means that it can be done.

      I agree that the fact that the Lyric Opera balanced its books does not alone does not mean everything is fine. But if key groups are making it work, I feel the best step is to examine what they are doing right, and to consider if others can learn from it, rather than to write them off as inconsequential anomalies or data “noise.”

      “The ‘stream of information’ indicates that among the major opera companies in the United States, ticket sales are down.”

      This is not snark—I’m curious as to your sources. I’ve only seen one study referenced on this point, the Opera America study that only ran to 2012. As I’ve commented before, that study shows fluctuations over time, but the only serious decline came in 2009 as the Great Recession started, but the decline stabilized after one year. In the Orchestra world, many top organizations have seen blockbuster growth over the last few years.

      And one point, ticket sales is of course an incredibly important economic indicator. But it is not the only one. It is possible to sell fewer tickets, but to see a rise in overall revenue (whether or not this is a good thing is another question). Also, it is possible for an organization with diverse revenue streams to make up differences elsewhere, and still end the year in the black. I note that this is similar to current trends in fundraising, where Giving USA notes that the current trend for non-profits is fewer donors giving larger sums. So yes, the number of donors declined, but total dollars given has risen sharply.

      “Some companies have changed their programming (reducing numbers of performances, narrowing repertoire, adding concerts and musical theater presentations) and have at least for the moment managed to keep their sales flat and their budgets balanced.”

      Well… yes. With respect, that’s what all performing arts organizations do, and have done since time immemorial. You constantly measure resources against ambitions and try to find a balance. Are there compromises? Of course. And if the compromises get too compromising, yes that spells trouble. I guess my view is there will always be compromises, and there will always be choices that an organization has to make. So these specific choices don’t worry me—yet. If they are done in a way that capitalized on the groups’ artistry, engaged audiences, and helped the bottom line, I don’t think the things you mention are inherently out of line. If they multiply over time and dilute the organizations’ mission, then there will be a problem.


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