A few short weeks ago there was a new development in the ongoing labor dispute between the Woodruff Arts Center (WAC) and the locked out musicians of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO). Following a few false starts, both sides agreed to meet with federal mediator Allison Beck to try and find a resolution.
Those who have been following the most recent rash of labor disputes rippling through the world of classical music could foresee one of two potential outcomes, based on the experiences of two different ensembles. On the one hand, the move toward mediation could follow the path of the Metropolitan Opera, where mediation brought both sides together, leading to a mutually-acceptable compromise. As Alison Beck was a key figure in these negotiations, there was certainly hope that she would be able to bring both sides together in Atlanta, too.
The other possibility is that the attempt at mediation could follow the path of the Minnesota Orchestra. While this case also involved an eminent peace-maker (Senator George Mitchell, who famously brought peace to Northern Ireland), no accord was reached. The Minnesota Orchestra negotiators ultimately refused Mitchell’s proposals, arguing that if they accepted them they would “lose leverage” to use against their musicians.
So what would be the result in Atlanta? Would a seasoned veteran be able to hammer out an agreement? Or would both sides end up as far apart as ever?
Well… based on the developments of the last 24 hours or so, my impression is that we’re closer to the Minnesota model, rather than the Met model.
And sadly, looking at the actions of the WAC thus far, I’m increasingly suspicious that it has only agreed to mediation as part of a stalling tactic.
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To begin, it appears that the WAC representatives are only indifferently taking part in the mediation process, as evidenced by a letter sent to the ASO board of directors. (Oddly enough, the ASO board is only indirectly involved in negotiations—it is the WAC’s board that has the real authority to make decisions.) In this letter, the musicians note that the two sides have met only twice since Allison Beck came on-board, and that after the second session on October 8, WAC management asked for a “pause” with no additional negotiating sessions scheduled.
“We have not heard from the WAC about the results of the ‘pause’ they sought in the mediation process,” wrote the musicians, “but clearly, once again, they arrived at the table with neither proposals nor the ability to authorize a deal.”
In response, the WAC sent out a letter of its own. In it, WAC spokesman and negotiator J. Thomas Kilpatrick gave bland assurance that there was no pause, and certainly no attempt to stall negotiations. He also noted that “We look forward to meeting next week and are prepared to continue to bargain in good faith.”
With respect, I simply don’t believe Mr. Kilpatrick.
I want to be clear that I am not accusing him of lying—I have no direct knowledge of the negotiations and have no basis or justification for doing so. But still, based on the words and actions of the WAC leadership to date, it would be foolish to take any of their statements at face value. Why so? Well, leaders of the ASO and WAC have a history of making statements that are not exactly true.
Allow me to provide some examples.
- Back when the lockout first began in early September, the musicians accused then-ASO President Stanley Romanstein of going back on his word. They noted that when the last lockout ended back in 2012, Romanstein made a commitment to the musicians that the ASO would not seek similar concessions in the future. Because of this, the musicians have seen the current lockout as a specific betrayal of trust. When asked if he had indeed made such a promise two years ago, Romanstein vehemently denied it. Well, an audio recording of Romanstein actually making that very remark has indeed emerged, leading to broader questions about the WAC’s truthfulness. Writer Drew McManus, for example, openly expressed “concerns about a larger, calculated degree of duplicity and whether or not it was limited to this one senior WAC executive or the entire executive committee.”
- Last month, the ASO leadership sent out misleading emails cancelling the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra (ASYO) auditions. In the version sent to the press, the ASO was studiously neutral about the cause of the cancelations, but in the version sent to the students and the broader public, it explicitly blamed the union. Making different statements to different constituencies does not help your credibility.
- And finally, there was the leadership’s “announcement” that both sides had agreed to mediation in the first place. This was news to the musicians—they had not agreed to mediation at the time, and in fact had not even been contacted by the proposed mediator.
For these reasons, I feel it would be foolhardy to trust any statements from the WAC without first verifying them with independent sources.
But there is another problem with Kilpatrick’s description of events… it just doesn’t make sense.
Again let me reiterate: the musicians have been locked out by management against their will. Right now, they are going without pay and insurance, and under Georgia state law they are ineligible for unemployment. But they still have mortgages to pay. They still have tuition to pay. They still have a whole series of bills to pay. And if they have any kind of medical condition ranging from pink-eye to cancer, they have medical bills to pay.
It is not in their best interests to delay. Even for a moment.
So of course they’ve been anxious to restart negotiations. The musicians want this resolved as quickly as possible. That is precisely why they sent their letter to the ASO board—to try to get the WAC negotiators back to the table and keep discussions moving along.
This is what makes Kilpatrick’s account of events so bizarre. As quoted by Howard Pousner:
“Kilpatrick said that after ‘extensive discussions’ with the mediators on Oct. 7 and 8, the negotiation teams adjourned to update and add to their original proposals. ‘In the words of the mediators, it was time to put some of the shared ideas “on paper,” ’ Kilpatrick wrote. ‘This was precisely what ASOPA had asked us to do — make new proposals to show our good faith.’
“The attorney said he called the mediators on Monday with an offer for the sides to meet on Wednesday, then [Alison Beck’s associate Richard] Giacolone notified him on Tuesday ‘that the union was not available for a meeting this week.’ With Beck out of the country next week, Kilpatrick recounted that Giacolone confirmed on Wednesday that he will lead negotiating sessions next Tuesday through Thursday.”
First, Kilpatrick seems to suggest that Federal Mediator Alison Beck told the WAC leadership to take a week or so and write up a new proposal. Really? To what end? And how much time could he need for this exercise?
Kilpatrick and the WAC certainly know the sticking points of negotiations. They have to know the areas of concern for the musicians, as these points have been covered extensively in the press. And surely Kilpatrick had an inkling of how far the WAC would go when he walked into the room—if he didn’t, why was he a negotiator? I mean, this is how negotiations work… both sides send in deputies who are knowledgeable about the key issues, and are authorized to engage in the process and make decisions.
I have to believe that if Kilpatrick was asked to put some ideas on paper, he could have written up new terms on the back of an envelope and slid it across the table right there and then. If there was a larger question or if he needed feedback from someone higher up, he could have stepped quietly into another room and made a phone call.
How much time does he need?
But then, the story gets even weirder. Kilpatrick goes on to describe that for some reason, when he finally got his ideas on paper, he called the mediation team only to discover that “the union” was not available for a meeting—this is unfortunate, in that the Alison Beck was out of the country the following week, and any negotiations that occurred during this time would have to be conducted by her associate, Richard Giacolone. So, more delays.
I’m sorry, but this story makes no sense.
If it is in their best interests to negotiate, why would the musicians (not “the union”) so blithely wave off an opportunity to meet over an entire week, especially since the head mediator was unavailable the following week? Not to disparage Richard Giacolone’s abilities, but why would the musicians willingly seek to bypass the services of a top federal mediator, and further complicate an already complicated situation, when they so clearly want to end the dispute? What possible motive would they have for such a delay? What advantage could they possibly hope to gain from it?
Isn’t it far more likely that this is simply a delaying tactic, as the musicians allege? Isn’t it more logical that the WAC is hoping to delay the proceedings as part of its clear strategy to starve out the musicians—to inflict maximum financial pain so that they’ll accept painful concessions they would never otherwise agree to?
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At the end of the day, this is just depressing. Many had hoped that Alison Beck would be able to come in and find a solution that both sides could agree to. But based on the WAC’s actions of the last two weeks or so, I think it’s clear that it doesn’t want a solution… it just wants to starve out the musicians.
And I don’t quite know how Ms. Beck will be able to work around that.