Empty Spin

Those of us who followed the Minnesota Orchestra dispute closely are getting clobbered with a sense of déjà vu. It seems that the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO), under the direction of its parent company the Woodruff Arts Center (WAC), is engaged in precisely the same actions that we saw here in Minneapolis.

Case in point, it appears that the ASO has decided to negotiate with its locked out musicians via the press. Or more specifically, via a graphic that has been helpfully posted on social media.


It’s hard to ignore the similarities between this piece and a chart provided by the then-management of the Minnesota Orchestra, which I commented on here.

And it really doesn’t help the ASO’s case.

* * *

Let’s start with the declarative title, “What’s on the Table.” This clipped, strong wording is presumably part of an attempt to make A Firm Statement. It denies that any ambiguity exists, and tells us that what follows is The Truth, as if coming from an impartial observer.

Obviously, this is not the case.

A more accurate title would be, “Our View of the Issues.” An even more accurate title would be, “The Self-Selected Talking Points We Wish To Present To The Public So That We Can Persuade It Of The Rightness Of Our Cause, Presented Alongside With Our Characterization Of Our Opponents’ Positions That Are Also Framed To Support Our Cause.”

Seriously, this is insulting. Shouldn’t the ASO be negotiating with musicians directly, instead of negotiating through the media?

But that isn’t the only thing I find disturbing—the overall approach of this “document” is terrible.

To the ASO management, I say that you have chosen what you feel are the key points, and have preemptively responded to them. Do the locked out musicians actually believe the points you have attributed to them? Does the list you have compiled include any of the points they feel are important? Does it reflect any concessions the musicians offered before the ASO management shut down negotiations?

No. This isn’t part of a high-minded, actual debate. It is not offered to the public so that it can reasonably compare the two sides’ respective positions. It is not sourced by any other documents, so we have no reason to believe that these are the actual positions that have been proposed. This is nothing but an empty ASO public relations piece that only tangentially intersects the reality on the ground.

* * *

In addition to the broad, general questions this piece raises, there are myriad problems with its specific points, too. I have nothing to do with the actual negotiations, but some of the statements here are so obviously, transparently skewed that I have to speak up.

Health Care. The individual rates are up for negotiation, and fair-minded individuals can agree or disagree that 15% is better than 17%.

But two things. First, you seem to toss out the notion that it is a benefit that all the people in the organization pay the same rate. Perhaps. But what you’re clearly doing is inciting a race to the bottom. The story of health care in the US over the last quarter century has been that more and more employers have had more and more of their employees pick up the lion’s share of health care costs. You know that the staff pay a much higher rate; and it is obvious that you are trying a backhanded play to get a huge, immediate concession from the musicians… and to do so by masking the real-world size of the cut, and trying to dress it up by saying it’s somehow about “fairness.”

No, it’s not about fairness.  It’s about forcing the musicians to take a massive hit to their paycheck without making yourselves look bad in the process.

Also, you use the positive-sounding word “flexible” to characterize the program. Sorry, but I think many of us have experienced what “flexibility” means in that context… you simply wait until attention fades and suddenly announce a 100% increase in rates, in response to “changing circumstances” that you “deeply regret.” Maybe we should believe you; but simply based on the misinformation in this graphic, I would hesitate to trust you with my health care premiums.

Salary. I presume you’re posting the numbers like this to make it seem that the musicians are being just plain unreasonable. A 15% increase, when times are tough? The nerve!

But let us remember they already took a 15% cut two years ago, dropping salaries to a point that they are not particularly competitive for a top-tier orchestra. The 15% increase would simply bring salaries back to their starting points two years ago, not accounting for inflation. And, the 4.5% barely covers inflation over the life of the contract, meaning the salaries’ “not particularly competitive” status will actually worsen over the next few years.

And as has been pointed out, there is considerable controversy about the ASO’s “tough times.” The musicians have provided numerous examples of how the larger WAC moved assets around within the broader organization, leaving the ASO with artificial deficits… conveniently on the eve of new contract negotiations. You’ll forgive me if I’m skeptical of your position.

Revenue Surplus. Really? In your characterization of events, your hardball approach to these negotiations is necessary because the organization has run deficits for over a decade. You’ve claimed again and again that the organization is hemorrhaging money. In fact, you say things are so bad that the massive concessions the musicians made two years ago were insufficient to stop the flow of red ink. This is how you are portraying the situation.

But here, you are suggesting that concessions made by the musicians today will be offset… by dividends paid on future surpluses? Have you provided any clear reason to believe how, when, and why these surpluses will appear?

And how are you measuring them?  The graphic seems to lack a specific number.

Musician Complement. And again you use the positive-sounding word, “flexible” to make your point. You want numbers to be “flexible” to manage costs.

This is mind-numbingly mendacious. Given that you keep warning us about economic ruin on the horizon (while for some reason promising surpluses), is there any reason to believe that you won’t look at next year’s budget and decide you can get by with five permanent musicians, and hire everyone else as non-salaried temps? You say you won’t… but when push comes to shove, why wouldn’t you? Is a throw-away bullet point on a Facebook graphic legally binding?

And with everything that has happened so far in this dispute, why would we trust you to not do this? After all, two years ago you guaranteed the musicians wouldn’t face another round of budget cuts.

Your statements here also obscure a couple of important truths. First, an orchestra needs a certain number of players. If you don’t have permanent players on hand, you’re forced to hire out temps or contract workers. But as good as those people might be, they cannot bring the same unified sound or sense of purpose as regular players. It’s like bringing in temporary shortstop for a single baseball game, and expecting he will be able to turn a double play with the same finesse as your regulars. The public will notice the difference.

Also, you are a 501 (c) (3) not-for-profit arts organization. So why is economics the primary determinant of your art? Yes, you have to be financially stable and financially prudent… but these are not ends in and of themselves. The finances have to support your art, not the other way around.

Conclusions. Conveniently, the missing numbers based on hazy, untrustworthy information somehow add up to a balanced budget, while the musicians’ position leads to ruin. Surprising.

* * *

And as I pointed out, these are the points you care about, and that you think will bolster your case. What about the points the musicians care about? What about the proof statements that bolster their case?

I have to hand it to you, this graphic does indeed reveal a great deal about your positions and thought processes. Alas, none of these revelations are good.




5 thoughts on “Empty Spin

  1. Dear Flower Prince; I love you. Your critical eye and analysis on the smallest detail is breathtaking. I, for one, would like to see an honest response from WAC/ASO Management to your myriad questions, but these people won’t even engage. We in Atlanta are disheartened, disbelieving and, frankly, shamed by their ineptitude and careless handling of our beloved orchestra. Thank you for paying attention; you’re providing great fuel.


  2. Although ASO management will post such on social media, they have removed the ability to make comments. I do concede the fact that all of us are facing increases in healthcare premiums–in my organization, we are all getting hit with significant increases. So in that regard, I don’t necessarily feel the pain for the musicians (I feel sorrier for those in my organization getting hit with increases upwards of 25%!)

    That said, the graphic put forth by the ASO management clearly is propaganda designed to depict the “unreasonableness” of the musicians and it doesn’t tell a truthful story. And it doesn’t tell the story that the musicians were locked out and doesn’t say that there were options, including talk and play, that would have prevented the cancellation of the first two months of the season. All season subscribers should demand refunds.


  3. spot on, as usual. Only quibble is tag you are shirting the musicians in your math in that a 15% cut is greater than a 15% increase (from a lower number). Thx for what u do to bring clarity to the crisis.


  4. Pingback: The Lockout Cocktail, or, Fiddling While Romanstein Squirms | trudgemusic

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