“What went wrong?” A good question.
The Ft. Worth Star-Telegram seeks to ask that question in an article posted today about why the musicians of the Ft. Worth Symphony Orchestra (FWSO) called a strike.
I have a counter-question… what went wrong with the Star-Telegram’s reporting for the strike? Don’t get me wrong, as a piece of arts reporting, this article provides a solid foundation to understand what’s going on. But there is a problem: critically, it tells only one side of the story.
All in all, this reminds me of the Minnesota Orchestra labor dispute, where even the most innocuous figures put out by management (and similarly re-reported in the media without commentary) were manipulated nearly beyond recognition. Everything from seating capacity and number of tickets sold to the size of the average donation was shaded as part of a larger PR campaign directed against the musicians. A similar scenario played out during negotiations at the Metropolitan Opera. In both these cases, the numbers put forward by management fundamentally distorted the picture of what was going on in their respective organizations.
I don’t want to throw this particular author (whom I’ve never met) under the bus, but seeing this same tendency play out in Ft. Worth is concerning. Let me explain.
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First, a recap for readers not familiar with events taking place in the Lone Star State. The FWSO management has been mired in contentious labor negotiations with its musicians for over a year—and at least part of that time, negotiations included Federal mediators from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. Pay was a major stumbling block; the musicians accepted a 13.5% cut as recently as 2010, in order to help the organization survive the Great Recession. Today Ft. Worth is thriving, and ticket sales are on the rise, but management is demanding more cuts. In this round of negotiations, the FWSO management was seeking pay cuts that even into the fourth year of the contract (the year 2020) would be more than 5% below what compensation was in 2010. Other concessions were sought, too, especially in the area of health care.
These are important issues that warrant further exploration. But again, for the moment I want to sidestep the points of the negotiation to share a few thoughts about the media in general, and this article in particular, cover both the arts, and disputes within the arts world.
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“At issue is the musicians’ labor contract. Management and the union have been in federal mediation since July and in contract negotiations for more than 15 months.”
This is true, but should suggest something right out of the gate… that there are some seriously intractable differences here. The fact that federal mediators have been called in for months, and even they couldn’t bring about a resolution, is significant. The Star-Telegram treats this fact simply as background, but it isn’t. On the contrary, this gets to one of the key problems going on here.
Put plainly, if someone wants to know “what went wrong,” the idea of stubbornness needs serious attention. Because someone is clearly being very stubborn.
So who is being intractable? Why? How do we know someone is being unreasonable or not?
In press statements, the musicians noted that:
Management issued its last, best and final offer yesterday morning when musicians met to resume negotiations. The musicians had come with plans to bargain, but were met with the same exact offer which the musicians rejected four days ago. Management also announced that this final offer would be implemented on Monday, a clear signal that management’s intention was to irresponsibly cease talks.
In response, the FWSO management seems to have given an exasperated sigh and said… well, we just can’t afford to do business as usual. So we won’t. From a previous story in the Star-Telegram:
We cannot allow a threat from the union to coerce us into fiscal irresponsibility.
This and other statements point to the fact that the FWSO seems most concerned about “winning.” And despite their tepid protestations to the contrary, are perfectly fine with a work stoppage if it gets them what they want.
So, there you go: stubbornness. From the FWSO management. An unwillingness to truly work with the musicians… or apparently, federal mediators. To me, that sure looks like a big reason for “what went wrong.” I’d urge the Star-Telegram to dig a bit further here, rather than to simply make this statement as background.
“The orchestra employs 65 full-time musicians with an average salary of $62,000 and health benefits. A proposed contract that musicians rejected earlier this week included a significant pay cut in the first year and then small, incremental pay raises in the following three years. By the fourth year, the pay increases would have resulted in principal players being paid more than $70,000 a year.”
There are a couple of major flaws here. First, in the midst of a contentious dispute, the Star-Telegram seems to simply restate the figures provided by the FWSO management. That is, it uncritically passed along disputed information, from an interested party who is actively involved in that dispute.
This gets problematic.
Of course the FWSO management is going to present itself and its case in the most favorable light possible. That’s why it uses an average salary in its report. “Average” has no meaning here… in every organization there are a few highly-compensated members (because of job duties, title, seniority, etc.) and those earning more of an entry level pay. The average pay between a CEO making $250,000 and a new hire making $40,000 is $145,000. Does that number have any relevance for either worker? Moreover, the number is constantly in flux as personnel come and go. No, the true measure of musicians’ salaries should be base pay—an absolute, contractually specified number that all others are based on—rather than a changing number that is not tied to anything specific.
But more to the point, it’s telling that the information provided by the FWSO management is based entirely on the principal players’ salary… principals being some of the most highly paid individuals. As Drew McManus wrote in his article on the Ft. Worth strike:
On average, 15 percent of musicians qualify for principal salary so presenting it in the context of musician annual compensation risks coming across as a disingenuous claim. For example, during the 2014/15 season, the guaranteed annual salary for musicians, which serves as the starting point for the majority of musician employees, was $54,954 or just over 20 percent less than the figure the employer presented.
So again, the Star-Telegram is falling into the trap of uncritically basing its news report on a single set of clearly biased numbers, which were provided by one side in the dispute. There’s no disclaimer, no attempt at context, no rebuttal from the opposing side. But in fact, there is a broader context going on here, another side to this story… and the numbers the FWSO management provides are misleading.
“Management says it simply can’t grant the musicians raises and remain viable. Orchestra staffers’ pay has been frozen for several years, and they have received no pension funding, management says.”
This, at face value, sounds grim. But again, the management is providing no context. For example, many orchestras around the nation have done well, and have enjoyed a great deal of success… during the exact same 15-month period that the FWSO management has been fighting with its musicians. The Kansas City Symphony, for example, announced a new contract with substantial raises and increased benefits because, per their management, “we were losing too many talented musicians to other orchestras.” And the region around Kansas City (particularly the Kansas side) is going through tough economic times of its own, with far fewer resources as Ft. Worth.
So if other orchestras are making it work, I would suggest that this statement by management needs to be looked at much more critically.
I would also point out, for the record, that the FWSO has no strategic plan past the year 2017 and the organization has had a bit of a revolving door policy toward fundraising, moving through five development heads in less than five years. This suggests some deeper issues beyond the fact that management “simply can’t grant musicians raises.”
I’d urge the Star-Telegram to look into these issues, too.
“In a candid interview nine months ago, Amy Adkins, FWSO president and CEO, laid out for the Star-Telegram reasons why management said it needed to cut musicians’ pay, including loss of performance fees from other performing arts organizations, decreases in corporate giving, endowments that were hit by the downturn in the oil and gas industry, and increased rental costs at Bass Hall.
‘No matter what we are doing to improve matters, the setbacks have erased everything we’ve done and then some,’ Adkins said in January.
For background on the FWSO’s financial troubles, which predate the recession, read our entire story from January, ‘Fort Worth Symphony dealing with deficits lasting several years, CEO says.’”
“CEO says.” Yes, that’s hits on a huge problem here: the CEO is the only one interviewed or quoted for this story.
The key is that the CEO is a principal in this dispute, and a person with a clear agenda. She is not impartial—there are other perspectives that need to be addressed.
Ultimately, this is the recurring problem with this piece. It isn’t an unbiased “background piece,” but rather a position paper. Instead of trying to do an independent analysis of what happened, or to interview both sides in the dispute, the Star-Telegraph has uncritically posted the talking points of one side of the dispute. This is the equivalent of only asking President Obama why the Senate has not confirmed Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, and not even asking for a response from the Republican side.
So yes, it’s good to quote Amy Adkins, but I hope the FWSO musicians get equal time.
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Again, let’s leave aside the particulars of the FWSO strike for a moment. Simply as a background analysis, this story hits at several elements of contemporary arts writing that concern me.
The piece doesn’t attempt to present an even-handed explanation of what’s happening; instead, it uncritically reposts the position of one actor in the dispute. This is a blind spot I’ve seen many times, from many reporters. We’re conditioned to believe that since management deals with the business side of the organization, anything it says about the business side of the organization is true and unbiased. At the start of the Minnesota Orchestra dispute, I fell into that trap as well… but long, painful experience has taught me differently.
In this story, the musicians aren’t quoted at all… which is surprising, in that they have a website and a Facebook page. And it appears that an audience advocacy group is arising—they too have a perspective on this situation.
Let me be clear: other perspectives must be provided. The managements’ statements must be examined critically. Especially in this case, where there are clear indications that the management is a huge part of the problem.
Good start… but now can we hear from the FWSO musicians?