Over the past few days I’ve been hit with a strange sense of déjà vu… as well as an impending disaster. Both these feelings are tied to the ongoing story of the Ft. Worth Symphony Orchestra (FWSO) and its contentious labor negotiations with its musicians. Negotiations have drawn on for more than a year, through 29 bargaining sessions, but once again the management refuses to budge. Once again an orchestra’s management seeks to “right size” its budget through drastic pay cuts borne entirely by the musicians.
Once again an orchestra seeks to cut its way to prosperity.
You’ll immediately understand why this seems so familiar—this ugly scenario closely mirrors similar meltdowns with the Minnesota Orchestra, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Metropolitan Opera, Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra…
…you get the point.
I was a close observer for many of these battles, and I’ve been horrified that many of the same arguments that animated these disputes are being used in Ft. Worth, too. Horrified not just because these ideas were wrong, but that they were strategically so ineffective. For example, Michael Henson of the Minnesota Orchestra and Stanley Romanstein of the ASO tried to impose punitive labor contracts on the orchestra musicians and impose a new business model on their respective organizations, but the community ultimately rebelled against these ham-fisted negotiation techniques, and both Henson and Romanstein were forced out. Peter Gelb of the Met nearly faced a similar fate; he still holds his job, but is clearly in a weaker position.
Given this record of failure, I’m curious that anyone else would want to try this same approach.
But there’s something else I want to bring up.
Let’s leave off, for a moment, the particulars of this contentious labor negotiation. Let’s put aside ideas about unions, incompetent management, or the idea of “winning.”
In pushing forth a harsh, punitive contract, the FWSO management is damaging the community as a whole. And that damage will last even—and especially—if it “wins” this round of contract negotiations.
Let me explain.
First, a word about music. Music (and really, arts in general) have often been written off as luxuries, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Think about it—music is a way we connect, and is fundamentally woven into all aspects of our lives. There is nothing so quintessentially American as starting a ballgame with the National Anthem… a moment of shared unity before we break about into our separate, rabid packs of fans. It is a fundamental fiber of all life events, including weddings and funerals. It forms the core of worship services. It speaks to us as we fall in love and recover from heartbreak. Through music, we come together from all walks of life to mourn, to heal, and to live.
But it isn’t just music that’s important to all this… it’s the musicians themselves.
They are the ones who shape these life experiences, and make this shared unity possible. People like the anonymous bugler playing Taps. Or the church soloist whose hymn singing helps sends loved ones to their final rest. The singer who accompanies you as you dance with your daughter at her wedding reception. The patient teacher who trains your sons or daughters, and gives them the confidence to take the stage at a recital.
Musicians are the people who make these life events stand out and give them depth. If they can’t make a living, they’ll go elsewhere… to the loss of us all. Think about it: do you want a trained professional performing at your daughter’s wedding… or your nephew Billy who will do “the best he can”? Or worse, some guy who’s paid minimum wage… and treats your daughter’s wedding accordingly?
But consider this too. Cities all around the country—and given our global economy, around the world—are constantly fighting to attract top talent. Quality people to relocate to their neighborhoods and make them strong. People to raise families, pay taxes, support the local economy, and get involved with various organizations.
They want people like professional musicians.
Ft. Worth strikes me as a place very close to my own Minneapolis—a city proud of its civic culture and sharing a strong sense of community ties. It wants to be a destination for solid, outstanding people to come to, and to be an imminently livable city.
Well, let’s take a look at the characteristics of people like the FWSO musicians, and what they bring to the table.
- Highly educated. A career in music takes extensive training and education—many musicians have secured multiple degrees.
- Community-centered. Musicians are active in their communities—and particularly in their local schools. Growing up, they benefited from school enrichment programs and after-school activities… they are very aware of their importance, and are usually on the front lines to make sure they succeed. They also often serve as music teachers themselves, and also serve as guest soloists for youth, community, or training orchestras.
- Globally focused. Musicians have usually traveled, studied, and performed extensively. This has given them a broad perspective on how the world works.
- Active in houses of worship. Many are deeply involved in their churches, playing as soloists or serving music directors. They also partner with churches for concert series.
Musicians aren’t just some line-item on a ledger sheet, but a huge resource and stabilizing force in their communities. Cities should be fighting to attract them… and many cities already are. By making itself a destination orchestra, the FWSO will attract top talent that will be more than skilled players—they will be actively, joyously involved in their community. A destination orchestra can help make Ft. Worth a destination city.
But don’t just take it from me. The musicians are speaking about this, in their own words. They have created a series of three short videos explaining what they bring to the community, how they are members of the community, why they want to be members of the community, and why the current labor tension with the FWSO management is forcing them to leave the community.
The first one focuses on how the sacrificial pay cuts mandated by the FWSO are forcing some into early retirement. The result is that some of its most familiar, valuable members with years of experience and extensive community ties are walking away from the organization… even though they have much still to give.
The second video details the many ways the FWSO musicians are involved in their community, and why it means to much to them. Why it is home, and why they want to see Ft. Worth thrive.
The final video is perhaps more disquieting, showing that musicians fearful of repeated pay cuts and a toxic work culture. They are thinking of leaving—and other musicians are less interested in auditioning to take their places. This starts a death-spiral for an orchestra (or any other organization), where its inability to attract top talent means that it is less able to generate support for itself… who wants to buy tickets or donate to a mediocre orchestra? How does the FWSO survive once this spiral begins?
The musicians’ full site is here.
So let me be clear…there is a very real human cost here. The vibrancy of Ft. Worth’s culture is threatened, as is its civic vitality.
I hope the FWSO management can take a step back, and realize that this contentious labor situation can damage their community. At a macro level, they are driving away the very people Ft. Worth is trying to attract… and other cities are rushing in to snap these people up.
Ft. Worth’s losses will be another city’s gain.