What Are They Thinking in Hartford?

I’ve just come across an extraordinary press release, put out by the musicians of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra (HSO). The HSO musicians and its management have been locked in contentious contract negotiations all year, with management demanding the musicians accept draconian pay cuts in save the organization from dire financial woes.

This press release, however, puts management’s position in a terrible new light.  Reading through it, all I can do is shake my head in disgust.

Let me explain.

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The press release, dated November 23, reads:

The Musicians of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra have renewed their call for the management of HSO to share in the sacrifice they are asking of the musicians. In January of this year, in its initial proposal to the Union for a new collective bargaining agreement, HSO management proposed wage cuts of up to 40% as well as onerous changes in work rules, which would inhibit musicians’ ability to earn a living wage.   The Union responded with a counterproposal that asked for shared sacrifice from all areas of management and staff.   Management rejected and continues to reject any proposal from the musicians which contains shared sacrifice with management.  

Often, when an employer seeks major financial concessions from its workers, management will offer to share the pain. From the days following World War II, when the musicians of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra played for free for an entire year in order for the orchestra to get back on its feet, the musicians of the HSO have always sacrificed to build and maintain the orchestra the community knows and loves.

As recently as 2007, the organization found itself with extreme financial challenges and brought in industry expert and former CEO of both the Boston Symphony and Cleveland Orchestra, Tom Morris, to help formulate a plan to deal with those challenges. While Morris said that the musicians’ contract was not the problem, he said that all of the constituents of the organization needed to contribute towards solving the financial problem. In doing their part, the musicians agreed to $300K of cuts as part of a three-year contract. Despite these concessions, musicians were asked to reopen their contract two more times over the next eighteen months, each time giving additional concessions in wages and numbers of musicians. To be clear, the key component of the Morris solution was the HSO Board’s agreement to launch a $10M endowment campaign. Eight years later, the HSO Board has failed to live up to their promise. This failure to launch an endowment drive has precipitated this latest call for cuts to the musicians.

[Emphasis added. The full text can be found here.]

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Wow. What makes this so extraordinary is that the musicians needed to make this request at all. Why on earth isn’t management taking steps to share the financial pain already, if economic times are so tough?  Why does only one side need to take cuts, if the organization is struggling financially?

I can see why negotiations are contentious.

To be clear, the decision of management not to engage in some sort of shared sacrifice—but rather to balance the budget entirely via cuts borne by the musicians—is an astonishingly bad one. Plus, it suggests the HSO management has not been paying close attention to any of the other labor disputes that have engulfed the world of classical music over the last five years.

There are so, so many problems with this approach, but let me focus on three key points.

1. This is a public relations nightmare. Let me be blunt. The fact that management isn’t willing to share in the financial pain makes this whole dispute look like an ideologically-driven, punitive attack on the musicians.   There have been many classical music labor disputes over the last few years, led by people who were quite open about their contempt for unions. But these leaders never pulled something like this—they all recognized that they had to at least keep up the façade of being a team player to maintain credibility… or at least plausible deniability about what they were up to. For example, the Minnesota Orchestra’s Michael Henson suggested he would take a pay cut equivalent to whatever the musicians agreed to, and the Metropolitan Opera’s Peter Gelb repeatedly stated that he had already taken a voluntary pay cut and was simply asking for musicians to do the same. Of course, both these leaders worked hard behind the scenes to minimize the impact these cuts would have on them—Henson by giving himself enormous bonuses on the side, Gelb by giving himself a substantial, preemptive raise—but both men still felt obligated to at least pretend to embrace the idea of shared sacrifice as part of a public relations strategy.

The HSO’s management apparently feels no such compunction.

The result is a case of dreadful optics. Obviously, this hits at the basic American value of fair play, and smacks of hypocrisy by forcing someone to give up something that you are not prepared to give up yourself. But also, this makes it hard to believe that the HSO leadership is truly concerned about the financial troubles the organization is going through; if they were concerned, they would surely take the breathtakingly obvious step of finding comparable cuts elsewhere in the organization.  That would, presumably, lead to even greater cost savings for the HSO… right?

Worst of all, this situation makes management look inept and uninspired. Instead of moving ahead with promised plans to engage in a capital campaign or launching any other budget-saving initiatives, management can only seem to come up with one solution—demanding musician cuts like some sort of twisted mantra. It’s curious to note the vastly different approach adopted by the San Diego Opera and Nashville Symphony when these groups were facing their own financial challenges. Their respective managements didn’t just try one thing to balance the budget… they tried everything. In contrast, the HSO leadership’s “musician cuts only” approach feels like nothing more than mendacious laziness.

2. This is a case of bad tactics. Related to the first point, this public relations disaster feels like an unforced error; by refusing to engage in any kind of shared sacrifice, the HSO management is giving its critics a ready-made weapon to use against it.

A parallel case happened with the Minnesota Orchestra during its 16-month lockout. It was revealed that CEO Michael Henson had gotten enormous bonuses at the same time he was claiming the organization was in such dire shape that he needed to lay off several staff members and impose draconian cuts on the musicians. The Minnesota Orchestra management had no easy response as to why this happened, nor was it able to ever defuse the issue. The bonuses became a cudgel that critics pummeled him with again and again, completely destroying Henson’s credibility and making him look like a greedy liar.

This lack of shared sacrifice offers a similar opportunity for critics of the HSO management. The timing is particularly bad, in that management has just been taken to task by the National Labor Relations Board for negotiating in bad faith.   Similar to what happened with the Minnesota Orchestra, these fumbles have knocked the HSO leadership onto the defensive; it is incredibly easy to paint the HSO management as mean-spirited, greedy, and lacking any serious plan to address the organization’s budget woes. Why give your opponents such an obvious opening?  Why so blithely abandon any high ground you might have?

3. This is ineffective. My greatest criticism here is that ultimately, one-sided budget cuts won’t solve the HSO’s ongoing financial woes. As Tom Morris pointed out, the musicians’ contracts aren’t the HSO’s real problem, and it is foolishness to think that simply by cutting them will management somehow bring about some sort of Golden Age. The HSO’s situation calls for holistic solutions… and that is what Morris and others have been advocating all along.

One reason that simply cutting the musicians’ contracts won’t work is that that the HSO musicians aren’t just a workforce—they are the product. Music is what it does. Keeping management intact while slashing away the core product is a recipe for disaster. If the HSO leadership drives away its talent, leading to subpar, uninspiring concerts, it won’t matter how financially sustainable the organization is—no one will support it. Think of this in your own life… do you go to a restaurant because it has a solid business plan? Do you see a movie because the studio posted healthy gains last quarter? Of course not.

And again, even staunchly anti-union leaders have come to this same realization. For example, last year Peter Gelb from the Metropolitan Opera demanded that the unionized musicians and workers of the Met take massive pay cuts, “else we face bankruptcy in a couple of years.” But he was forced to back down, and agree to a contract that notably did not include these substantial cuts. Instead, Gelb quietly implemented a series of massive cuts to management’s budget. The result? Last September the Met posted a $1M surplus.

The moral is that you can’t just make any ol’ cuts… you have to make smart cuts that do the greatest good while inflicting the least amount of harm.

But there’s another point, too—management’s unwillingness to share the pain cripples the organization’s sense of unity and shared purpose. And that makes it impossible for an organization to thrive. At this point, management is repeatedly alienating the musicians, when it should be treating them as allies in their shared success.

The power of this shared sense of responsibility is clearly evident in the San Diego Opera’s whirlwind turnaround over the last two years. Again, when it was clear the Opera was facing imminent closure, the organization adopted an “all hands on deck” approach. There was a shared sense of sacrifice, a shared commitment to results, and a shared sense of responsibility for keeping the organization alive. It worked, and the company is back to presenting great music. Similarly, a new leadership team with the Minnesota Orchestra came to power last year and completely transformed the organization’s culture; now musicians, management, staff, and community support groups are working together to ensure the organization’s long-term health.

Alas, too often it seems that the HSO musicians are treated as scapegoats rather than partners in success. As the musicians represent the core product of the organization, the organization will never thrive as long as they are not part of the solution.

* * *

Again, I’m astonished that the HSO arrangement has not taken the transparently obvious step of sharing the financial pain with the musicians. Refusing to do so is a case of bad optics and a tactical blunder. Plus, this blocks the organization from ever getting to the root of its real financial difficulties.

Taking a solidarity cut isn’t just the wisest thing to do… it is the only thing to do.

So do it.

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Xochipilli

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2 thoughts on “What Are They Thinking in Hartford?

  1. Pingback: Classical Music Round-Up: 12/5/15 – Classical Conditioning

  2. Pingback: Visions of Armageddon in Hartford | Mask of the Flower Prince

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