Statements, Part 2

Yesterday (in part 1 of this blog entry) I noted that the 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; shortly thereafter the two sides had begun making statements in the press. My main point was that the WAC’s statements were, to be honest, bizarre, and they did not inspire trust in the WAC’s ability to manage the situation.

Well… I’m disappointed to report that things only got worse.

While I was posting my blog entry, I learned that the WAC had posted a full-blown summary of its position. I didn’t want to delay my previous post, or make it any longer than it already was, so I held off on commenting about this much fuller statement.

Allow me to do so now.

* * *

At a glance, it appears that the statement isn’t (as of this moment) on the ASO’s website, so I will post the version that appears on their Facebook page. Curiously for a social media site, the comments have been wiped clean. I mean, isn’t that the purpose for posting things on social media—to encourage interactions? If not, why not just post it to the website? Regardless, here’s the link, but as not everyone uses Facebook, I’ll just copy and paste the text:

This is in response to the Counterproposal made by ASOPA last night shortly before 11PM. You were informed at that time that we would consider your counterproposal and respond in writing today.

First, let me remind you of the situation in which our negotiations have occurred. As you well know, the Atlanta Symphony has been losing millions of dollars every year for 12 consecutive years. We have used up a significant portion of our endowment to cover the losses. Ticket sales only pay for approximately 20% of the cost of producing classical concerts. The rest of the cost has to be covered by donor contributions and other revenue sources. Despite prior fundraising efforts by the ASO Board and Staff, and significant support from the Arts Center, there is still a deficit every year—$2 million last year. ASO is spending money it does not have.

Stated simply, continued deficits aren’t sustainable. Some of our biggest donors have told us they will stop contributing if we do not slow down our spending and put forth a plan for sustaining the Symphony into the future. It is against this background that the Union wants us to increase our expenditures and spend money we do not have.

Here are the specifics of our proposal:

  1. Wage Increases. Despite our desperate financial condition, we have offered the Union wage increases. This is because we know the Musicians took a substantial pay cut two years ago and we did not want to ask them to take another cut. Our proposal is to raise Musician pay by 4.5% over the term of the agreement. Your proposal would add almost $10,000 to each Musician’s base pay by the end of the fourth year. Musician base pay, excluding benefits, currently ranges from a high of over $200,000 to a low of approximately $75,000, with an average of $112,000, plus extra pay for such things as playing multiple instruments, overtime, youth coaching, travel, etc. We believe that our current offer is more than generous under the circumstances for 38 weeks of work and four weeks of paid vacation.
  2. Health Care. We have reached agreement on health care. The plan that ASOPA has agreed to is a BCBS High Deductible plan with HSA cash contributions to Musician accounts from $1,000 to $2,000. Musicians will only pay $20 per week for this plan. This modest increase is more than offset by the wage increases we have proposed.
  3. Size of the Orchestra. It has become clear that the only real remaining issue in the negotiations is the size of the orchestra. The Orchestra currently has 76 active musicians. The Union has demanded that the number of players be raised to 89 by the fourth year, regardless of the fact that the orchestra is losing money. Of course, everyone would like to have a very large orchestra, but we cannot afford 89 musicians at the present time.

ASO has proposed to start where we now are (76 musicians) and to guarantee that no Musician would lose his/her job during the four-year agreement due to downsizing. Then we would build the size of the orchestra over time as we can afford to do so—up to 90 players. To accomplish that, we committed to use our best efforts by putting a major endowment campaign into place, with the proceeds being used exclusively to increase the number of Musicians.

You have previously received our detailed proposal on complement which states:
“ASO will increase the complement through endowment of chairs during the term of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. The ASO/Arts Center intends, as of the date of this agreement, to create and undertake a major fundraising campaign focused on endowment of chairs, led by the ASO/Arts Center with the full support of the Music Director and the participation of Musicians.

The goal of the campaign will be to increase the complement of the orchestra as follows:  By the end of year one of the Agreement…………At least 77 Musicians By the end of year two of the Agreement………….At least 81 Musicians By the end of year three of the Agreement……….At least 85 Musicians By the end of year four of the Agreement…………At least 90 Musicians.”

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.

We are pleased that we are able to guarantee positions for the current 76 musicians but we must decline your proposal to guarantee more without having the funding in place to pay for them.

We have provided a path to a larger orchestra through an endowment campaign and we wholeheartedly believe that the Atlanta community will support such an effort. By rejecting that concept and demanding further deficit spending, we believe the union threatens to bring an end to our great orchestra.

Our proposal will remain open for your acceptance until 4PM, Monday, October 27, 2014. If not accepted by that time, we will be forced to make further cancellations.

* * *

And now, my response.

“You were informed at that time that we would consider your counterproposal and respond in writing today.”

I suppose there could be a reason why the WAC negotiators would need to leave the bargaining table and formally draw up a response, but are these steps truly necessary? Couldn’t you agree (or disagree) on the back of a cocktail napkin, and write up any formal response later, once both parties have agreed in principle? Why did you need to “adjourn” to do this? It feels like a transparent attempt to run out the clock… and indeed, the federal mediators have now left town.

“First, let me remind you of the situation in which our negotiations have occurred. As you well know, the Atlanta Symphony has been losing millions of dollars every year for 12 consecutive years.”

I’m sure the musicians don’t need a reminder… being without pay or insurance tends to focus the mind. I’m fairly confident the events of the past few months are seared into their memories without any help from the WAC.

And again with these statistics. Simply restating a point does not make it true. As many have pointed out, there are serious questions about how the WAC has managed the ASO’s finances, and these questions have not been satisfactorily answered. Plus, the WAC insisted two years ago that the lockout and subsequent cuts were going to turn this bleak financial situation around. By your own admission, they didn’t. So why are you relentlessly pursuing this same, failed strategy? Especially when you know that it is having an adverse impact on the organization?

“Ticket sales only pay for approximately 20% of the cost of producing classical concerts. The rest of the cost has to be covered by donor contributions and other revenue sources.”

Yes. You are a non-profit. This is what every other 501 (c) (3) not-for-profit organization experiences. Do you not realize how ridiculous you sound… to every other person across the country who works in a non-profit?

“Despite prior fundraising efforts by the ASO Board and Staff, and significant support from the Arts Center, there is still a deficit every year—$2 million last year. ASO is spending money it does not have.”

And again, since there are serious questions about how the WAC has managed the ASO’s finances, this statement is debatable at best. I ask you: Is it that the ASO does not have any money, or is it that that the ASO does not have any money because the WAC is withholding financial support from it?

“Some of our biggest donors have told us they will stop contributing if we do not slow down our spending and put forth a plan for sustaining the Symphony into the future.”

Perhaps. But are they the same big donors that currently are running the negotiations… so that only a very select group of self-interested people is weighing in? And if so, is the situation simply a self-fulfilling prophecy?

I’d also like to point out that several members of the ASO’s board have come forward with emergency funds, but the WAC turned this extra money down.

Moreover, in order to back up this statement, I would expect the WAC to produce a capacity study by a respected firm that clearly indicates that the community is tapped out. That’s what non-profits usually do.

And finally, this point is undermined by a recent article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, which showed that “in Atlanta, individual giving increased by more than $465-million from 2006 to 2012. Atlantans gave roughly 4 percent of their adjusted gross income to charity in 2012, which ranks the city fourth nationally among large metropolitan areas.”

This doesn’t help your argument.

“Our proposal is to raise Musician pay by 4.5% over the term of the agreement.”

Great! That covers inflation. It does not, however, bring the musicians up to the level of pay they were at two years ago.  And, these totals still keep wages on the low side for a major symphony orchestra.

“We believe that our current offer is more than generous under the circumstances for 38 weeks of work and four weeks of paid vacation.”

Leaving aside your self-satisfied “belief” in your “generosity,” I can’t help but read between the lines here. You are essentially trying to make the musicians look overpaid by tossing out the “endless weeks of vacation” canard. Look, as we dealt with repeatedly in the Minnesota Orchestra lockout, “vacation” means something very different for an orchestral musician. Like athletes, the musicians have to practice constantly, usually daily, to maintain conditioning. And they do so for the same reasons—that’s the only way to insure they stay at the top of their artistic game.  Plus, musicians are at grave danger for repetitive stress injuries. So musicians are not sitting around drinking mai-tais on the beach, those weeks are simply non-performance weeks. Giving musicians those breaks in the schedule is a win-win situation that is critical to maintaining health and keeping the overall level of performance high.

And “38 weeks?” Just how long is the season you’re proposing?

“The Union has demanded that the number of players be raised to 89 by the fourth year, regardless of the fact that the orchestra is losing money. Of course, everyone would like to have a very large orchestra, but we cannot afford 89 musicians at the present time.”

It isn’t just “the union” that is concerned about this. Every outside observer has concerns about this. Look, you need a set number of musicians to perform music by Beethoven, Mahler, or Strauss. If you don’t have that number, you will have to hire freelancers, or shift to a different kind of music.

There are real concerns that you will use this as an escape clause to unilaterally reduce the size of the ensemble, in effect turning it into a house band to back up pop performances. And based on your statements and actions to date, I find these fears to be fully justified.  Your assurances that you would not do such a thing are meaningless…after all, two years ago you promised not to demand concessions from the musicians again.

I covered this yesterday, if you wish to read more.

“Our proposal will remain open for your acceptance until 4PM, Monday, October 27, 2014. If not accepted by that time, we will be forced to make further cancellations.”

Please, can we stop with the abuser-blaming-the-victim routine? You locked out the musicians at the first moment you were legally able to do so. You chose to cancel the season. There is a well-established mechanism to keep the season going: play-and-talk. Groups do this all the time. All sorts of people have urged you to do so, too. So please, you aren’t forced to do anything. You are choosing to do this.

And taking this thought further, I find it odd that you are so coy about what you are doing. You have said again and again that you are acting to bring about much-needed “sustainability” for the organization, and you are convinced that this will be a net positive for the organization. To achieve sustainability, you have proudly announced your intention to cut costs and reduce the scope of the ASO.   And you clearly believe that although there might be short-term pain, the benefits will be worth it.

But why do you dissemble about your strategy to do so? Right from the beginning you were astonishingly evasive about the fact that you had locked out the musicians. Even today, you avoid using the factually correct word, “lockout,” and instead refer to what’s happening as a passive-voice “work stoppage.” And here, as elsewhere, you blame the musicians for bringing it about.

But this is your chosen strategy. You think it is a good thing that will provide benefits to all. So why won’t you own up to it, if it is so self-evidently wonderful?

If you are afraid of sparking a backlash… well, doesn’t that raise questions about how “obviously” good your strategy really is?

* * *

Again, given how sloppy the WAC is being—in both words and actions—I find it hard to take them seriously.

 

Xochipilli

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7 thoughts on “Statements, Part 2

  1. Before I posted a link to this to my Facebook page, I checked the ASO Facebook page and saw 71 comments – Cool! But when I clicked to read them — all gone. Still wiping them away, apparently.

    Like

  2. Pingback: Statements, Part 1 | Mask of the Flower Prince

  3. I, too, went to their FB page, and noted the same things as annmcn pointed out. I have screenshots showing the issue – and my challenge to them to be honest about what they are doing to the comments on that status. This is beyond stupid; it’s time for patrons of the arts in Atlanta (especially the donors) to make it clear to the WAC that this must end now.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. By any chance is this what Woodruff Arts Center has actually been doing to the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra over time? “Münchausen syndrome by proxy (MSBP or MBP) is a behavior pattern in which a caregiver fabricates, exaggerates, or induces health problems in those who are in their care.”

    Just a passing thought. 😉

    Like

  5. If the ASO is coming up short by $2mm per year, then what cuts are also being made in administration, overhead and board expenses to help close that gap. Is all of the gap being taken on the backs of the musicians?

    Like

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