Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have lost
my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of
myself, and what remains is bestial. My reputation,
Iago, my reputation!
– Othello, Act II, Scene 3, line 24
Those who have been reading my posts here know I have had a fairly low opinion of how the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO) management has been “managing” the labor dispute with its musicians. And that several times I’ve considered that management has gone as low as they could go (here and here, for example).
Sadly, management keeps on surprising me.
I’m not entirely sure what they would do to top yesterday’s caper, which reveals not just the ASO’s underhandedness, but its breathtaking incompetence—always an evergreen combination.
Yesterday at around 9:00 PM eastern time, the ASO sent along a press release that announced a breakthrough of sorts: there was an agreement by both sides of the dispute to enter into federal mediation. On Facebook the ASO posted the following:
Earlier today, the ASO musicians’ union accepted the ASO’s request from September 17 to involve a federal mediator in the collective bargaining process. We’re so pleased with this movement and are looking forward to getting back to the table.
We know our patrons are disappointed in our decision to enter a work stoppage, but we felt it would be irresponsible to continue digging the ASO deeper into debt given the severity of our financial situation and the lack of movement from both sides during the negotiation process.
We will be using the same mediator who handled the Metropolitan Opera negotiations in August. We have been eager to take this step so we can work towards giving Atlanta the orchestra is deserves – one of artistic excellence that is able to thrive and move audiences across the world for many years to come.
Good news, right? No.
As I mentioned, this statement is both inaccurate and inept. And as a result, I think the ASO has blown apart any last shreds of credibility… and for that matter, dignity.
First to the inaccuracies.
I begin with the musicians’ rebuttal:
We received a formal request for mediation on Monday, September 22nd at 10:55am from WAC/ASO management. Three hours later, we accepted the suggestion to speak with Ms. Allison Beck, the Acting Director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, and were told that FMCS officials would be contacting us accordingly, which has not happened yet. Mediation will only be successful if the WAC/ASO management is willing to move off the terms of the demands they have been adamantly clinging to — in bad faith –since they locked us out three weeks ago tonight.
The musicians are happy to speak with FMCS Director Beck about pathways forward when she is able to be in touch with us. There is as yet no further agreement about the process.
With that in mind, let me provide a response of my own:
“Earlier today, the ASO musicians’ union accepted the ASO’s request from September 17 to involve a federal mediator in the collective bargaining process.”
No, the union did not “accept” your “request.” And the request was not made on September 17. And “involve” is a completely misleading word here; yes, the musicians agreed to speak with the mediator at her convenience, and in that regard she could be considered “involved.” But at this point she is only tangentially and hypothetically involved—she’s no more a part of the negotiations than I am. But that’s not what you are implying with this wording.
So, the only accurate words of this sentence seem to be “earlier today.”
“We’re so pleased with this movement and are looking forward to getting back to the table.”
You’re “so pleased” with a “movement” that never happened? I can imagine your excitement when something real actually happens, such as the moment when the mediator actually checks in with the musicians.
And from curiosity, if you’re so pleased to be getting back to the table, why did you walk away in the first place? Why have you avoided any contact with the musicians at all? Why have you forced them to submit proposals electronically instead of talking with them?
If this is all so pleasurable, why have you denied yourself this pleasures up to now… since you’ve had the power to make it happen all along?
“We know our patrons are disappointed in our decision to enter a work stoppage, but we felt it would be irresponsible to continue digging the ASO deeper into debt given the severity of our financial situation and the lack of movement from both sides during the negotiation process.”
Perhaps. But first, it isn’t a work stoppage. It’s a lockout. And again, you have unilaterally imposed this lockout. It is part of a clearly-defined strategy to impose economic pain to your musicians—you’re using it to force them to make concessions they would never agree to on their own. Given all the various timetables and options on the table, you imposed it the minute you were legally allowed to do so. Please, stop trying to blur the issue of agency here… you are doing this. You are deliberately inflicting pain on others. And you could end the lockout right now. Own up to this, and quit hiding behind euphemisms.
More to the point, you have made no attempt to explain why you went nuclear with your “work stoppage.” Why do you need to engage in this strategy right now? I’d love to see a cost analysis showing that the advantages of an immediate lockout outweigh the short- and long-term pain to the organization. Show us how this decision is a strategic good, so that the public can understand why a lockout is needed right this very minute. Otherwise, this looks like a simple case of union bashing at all costs. Plus, you come off as reckless and irresponsible.
“We will be using the same mediator who handled the Metropolitan Opera negotiations in August.”
Well, in truth you have proposed to engage the same mediator. But as she hasn’t (as of this writing) even been in contact with the musicians, this is entirely hypothetical. And thus, inaccurate.
* * *
And that is true of the whole; this entire “announcement” is inaccurate. Shockingly so. And it only took about five seconds of fact-checking to discover this painful fact. Worse, this isn’t just a case of spinning the truth, or selectively omitting inconvenient details—the ASO is making things up wholesale, and attributing comments and actions to people who have said and done nothing of the kind.
Quite frankly, I see no reason to ever believe anything the ASO says again, unless it is independently verified by a credible outside source.
But beyond being factually wrong, the presentation of this announcement to the public has been both underhanded… and comically inept.
How interesting that the announcement was made at roughly 9 PM This was presumably done to give it enough time to make the Sunday news, but not enough time to elicit a response from the musicians. Clearly, the ASO hoped to set the narrative in the public’s mind. That way when the musicians later protested that mediation wasn’t in the works, the ASO could suggest that the musicians somehow pulled out of negotiations. That would not be true, but if the ASO could establish a he-said-she-said dynamic in the press, it would be able to muddle the issue and deflect blame.
In doing so the ASO would obscure another point, too. As the labor dispute unfolds, it is gradually becoming clear that the Woodruff Arts Center (WAC) is the real power here. More and more people are realizing that the ASO board and CEO Stanley Romanstein are simply part of the larger WAC bureaucracy, and unable to make any final decisions without the WAC support. That was a problem two years ago, when the musicians and ASO apparently reached a provisional agreement to avoid a lockout, only to have the WAC kill it.
So the ASO’s announcement is pretty empty—it won’t matter who mediates what, since the WAC will have to approve it.
Thus, having the ASO announce that it was entering into mediation is simply an attempt to confuse the issue. The announcement makes the ASO seem like a real actor here, even though it has no power. Ultimately, the WAC would be able to nix the proposed solution (and has done so in the past)… making it clear that “mediation” is nothing more than a delaying tactic to run out the clock on musicians who currently are going without pay, have lost their insurance, and are ineligible for unemployment benefits.
So all in all, a nasty bit of work here.
But as in every other part of the lockout, it has been handled with breathtaking incompetence.
For all the clever timing of the release, the musicians were able to respond in time. So instead of setting up a narrative that suggests mediation will soon solve the dispute, the ASO has gotten angry push-back about sending out a completely mendacious press release. Norman Lebrecht has weighed in, as has Howard Pousner.
The misleading press release has become the story.
The ASO was caught in a bald-face lie, and I don’t know why anyone would trust its releases ever again. Any reporter worth his or her salt is going to have to independently verify every single statement the ASO announces, right down to the dates in question.
Plus, the ASO has all but invited opponents, bloggers, and audience advocacy groups to pick over its press releases like scavengers—every new release will be seen as potential fodder for a “gotcha” story.
And this reputation will stay with the ASO long after the current dispute is over. In this one idiotic move, the ASO has fundamentally tarnished its reputation. Mirroring Cassio’s famous lament from Shakespeare’s Othello, it has lost the immortal part of
itself, and what remains is bestial.
I’m sorry… but as an organization, the ASO simply has no honor.