What Went Wrong… with the Media’s Discussion of the FWSO Strike?

“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.

* * *

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.

* * *

“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.

* * *

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?

.

Xochipilli

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9 thoughts on “What Went Wrong… with the Media’s Discussion of the FWSO Strike?

  1. This is a response from the Musicians of the FWSO that was posted on the website of the Dallas Morning News following their story on the situation: http://www.dallasnews.com/lifestyles/arts/headlines/20160908-season-in-jeopardy-as-fort-worth-symphony-musicians-strike.ece

    Response to the Fort Worth Symphony Association’s FAQs and Answers

    “What is being asked of the musicians?”
    FWSO: [The] contract proposal … incorporated a reduction in the number of paid weeks from 46 to 43 in the first two years of the contract, increasing to 44 paid weeks in years three and four. The terms of the new agreement would have resulted in an approximate 6.5% reduction in annual pay in the first year with subsequent wage increases in years two, three and four. By the fourth year, musicians would earn approximately 3.5% more than their current wage, and principal players would have been paid more than $70,000.

    Facts from the Musicians of the FWSO:
    • Although the management states that the musicians would have a 3.5% increase in pay by 2020, that figure is actually 7.1% lower than the salary in 2010.
    • Under management’s proposal it will cost 42% of a musician’s base salary to insure their family on the FWSO health plan. (Endnote 1)
    • There are only 16 principal players (out of 67 salaried musicians) in the FWSO. (Endnote 2)
    • Management’s proposal actually calls for a 7.5% pay cut in year one, if you factor in the increased cost of healthcare premiums.
    • Musicians took a 13.5% pay cut in 2010 and a loss of paid weeks from 52 to 46, while still playing the same number of rehearsals and concerts. Now management wants the musicians to do the same work in 43 weeks.
    • Since 2010, musicians are leaving the FWSO at twice the rate of the previous decade. More cuts, with no plan for growth, will ensure that the FWSO ceases to be a destination orchestra.

    “Why is the FWSO facing such serious financial challenges?”
    FWSO: Local government giving is a fraction of its previous levels. Revenue generated by the orchestra’s endowment has been down for several years. The downturn in oil and gas has negatively impacted the level of philanthropic gifts.

    Facts from the Musicians of the FWSO:
    • Local government giving represents less than 1% of the FWSOA budget. (Endnote 3)
    • The Fort Worth Opera raised more than $1 million and doubled their donor base in 3 months. (Endnote 4)
    • Other Texas cities, faced with the same state-wide economic challenges, have orchestras that are growing and thriving. In the last year alone, the Houston Symphony budget increased 12%, and the Dallas Symphony raised $32 million. (Endnotes 5 and 6)
    • The Houston Grand Opera raised $16.8 million last year, $600,000 more than the previous year, despite the downturn in oil & gas. (Endnote 7)
    • According to the Texas State Comptroller, oil and gas is only 14% of the Texas economy because of diversification efforts. (Endnote 8)
    • The economy of the Fort Worth metro area has increased 32% since 2010, but the FWSO budget has shrunk from $13.1 million in 2009 to $11.9 million in 2015. (Endnotes 9 and 10)
    • The FWSO hasn’t launched an endowment campaign since 2000. (Endnote 11) If it has been down for several years, why hasn’t there been an endowment campaign?
    • In less than a year, the Buffalo Philharmonic has raised $23 million for its endowment. Detroit and Grand Rapids each recently raised $40 million for their endowments and Kansas City is nearing completion of a $55 million endowment campaign. (Endnotes 12, 13, 14)

    Can financial needs be met with increased fundraising or other cuts?
    FWSO: The FWSO actively pursues new sources of revenue. Our fundraising and marketing programs are working, but have yet to attain a level to achieve balanced budgets. Over the last two seasons, we achieved 17% growth in ticket sales and 10% growth in contributions from individuals. However, we must secure hundreds of thousands of new dollars, plus the musician concessions we are seeking, to achieve a balanced budget. We are also diligently working to control other costs. The administrative staff has endured layoffs, and contributions to the staff pension plan have been frozen since 2009.

    Facts from the Musicians of the FWSO:
    • The nation’s top arts management firm advised the FWSOA to increase the fundraising (development) department to at least 5 positions. This department has had 2 to 4 members over the last 18 months. (Endnote 15)
    • The FWSOA is searching for its 5th development director in 5 years, not counting the two additional development directors who left for personal reasons.
    • Comparable orchestras have larger development departments: Kansas City Symphony – 7 members; Utah Symphony – 9; Nashville Symphony – 12. (Endnote 16)
    • The FWSOA has no Strategic Plan past the year 2017. (Endnote 17)
    • Orchestras of similar size spend an average of 8% of total budget on fundraising. The FWSO Management spends less than 4%. (Endnote 18)
    • Management’s actions show a one-fold solution: cutting musicians’ salaries.

    “How much do musicians earn?”
    FWSO: The current minimum salary of an FWSO musician is $54,953, and the average salary of an FWSO musician is $60,564, not including overtime and other compensation such as seniority pay. Currently, musicians are paid for 46 weeks annually, which includes 42 days of paid leave and vacation, as well as many other benefits including generous sick leave and pension contributions.

    Facts from the Musicians of the FWSO:
    • With the proposed cuts, the FWSO would rank 33rd in salary amongst the country’s top 50 orchestras. The FWSO musicians’ salary would equate to the salary in 2003. (Endnote 19)
    • Industry standard for vacation days is 6 weeks. The Dallas Symphony and Houston Symphony each have 9 weeks. (Endnote 20) Vacation days are actually “physical recovery days.” Without these days a musician risks serious injury from over playing.
    • Seniority and overtime are negligible, totaling about $500 per year for only the most senior members of the orchestra. (Endnote 21)
    • The cost to insure a family on the FWSO insurance plan is approximately $1750 per month.

    “Didn’t the musicians already take pay cuts?”
    FWSO: During the recession, the musicians accepted salary reductions in 2010, and the staff endured layoffs and pension freezes. Since that time, musicians have received increases in wages and benefits in 2012, 2014, and 2015 totaling approximately 5.5%.

    Facts from the Musicians of the FWSO:
    • Musicians took a 13.5% pay cut in 2010 and a loss of paid weeks from 52 to 46. The musicians’ current salary is still 8.3% less than it was in 2010.
    • Since 2010, musicians are leaving the FWSO at twice the rate of the previous decade.
    • Management’s proposal would take a FWSO musician’s salary back to what they made 13 years ago (2003), $20,000 below the national average of the countries top 50 orchestras and $42,000 below what a Dallas Symphony musician makes. (Endnote 22)

    “How much of the FWSO’s budget supports musicians salaries?”
    FWSO: Currently, 46% of the Orchestra’s $12 million budget goes directly to musician salaries and benefits, a percentage much higher than the national average [of 33.5%].

    Facts from the Musicians of the FWSO:
    • This percentage has been increasing over the last few years simply because management has been shrinking its budget.
    • The orchestras who spend around 33.5% of their budgets on musicians’ salaries include the Boston Symphony, with an $86 million budget, and the L.A. Philharmonic, with a $121 million budget. (Endnote 23)
    • The average budget of the top 50 orchestras in the US is $36.4 million; the budget of the FWSO is $11.9 million. (Endnote 24)

    Sources:
    Endnotes
    1. http://members.afm.org/member/library/
    2. http://www.fwsymphony.org/about/musicians/
    3. FWSO IRS Form 990 (2013), Part VIII, 1e
    4. http://www.star-telegram.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article99109772.html
    5. http://members.afm.org/member/library/
    6. http://artsblog.dallasnews.com/2015/06/dso-ending-2014-2015-season-with-balanced-budget.html/
    7.https://www.houstongrandopera.org/globalassets/publications-media–news-items/press-releases/2016-6-1-annual-meeting.pdf
    8. http://www.mystatesman.com/news/news/state-regional-govt-politics/state-comptroller-oil-prices-arent-wrecking-texas-/nqCx2/
    9. http://www.bea.gov
    10. http://members.afm.org/member/library/
    11. http://www.fwsymphony.org/about/events.asp
    12.http://www.bizjournals.com/buffalo/news/2016/06/02/m-t-pledges-500-000-to-bpo-crescendo-campaign.html
    http://www.grsymphony.org/default.aspx?p=129276&naid=21911
    13.http://www.crainsdetroit.com/article/20160529/NEWS/160529844/departing-dsos-paul-hogle-looks-back-at-legacy-memories
    14.https://www.kcsymphony.org/StaticCtl/AdminPositionsAct
    15.http://www.fwsymphony.org/hld/dev/financials/strategic_plan_2013.pdf , Page 12
    16. https://www.kcsymphony.org; http://www.utahsymphony.org; https://www.nashvillesymphony.org
    17.http://www.fwsymphony.org/hld/dev/financials/strategic_plan_2013.pdf ,
    18. Chart of fundraising totals collected from ICSOM orchestras’ IRS Form 990s (chart available on request)
    19. http://members.afm.org/member/library/
    20. http://members.afm.org/member/library/
    21. http://members.afm.org/member/library/
    22. http://members.afm.org/member/library/
    23. http://members.afm.org/member/library/
    24. http://members.afm.org/member/library/

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  2. If it weren’t for the musicians we would have no orchestra. FWSO is so wonderful that perhaps nobody could pay them what they are worth but we can do better than what is currently taking place.

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  3. Pingback: What Went Wrong… with the Media’s Discussion of the FWSO Strike? | Nichelson Entertainment

  4. Where is endnote 1 supposed to take me? It takes me to the AFM site, but for people reading the article who aren’t AFM members, what will that tell them? I would like to see the data explaining how any organization could try to charge their members 42% of their salary for healthcare. That’s really appalling.

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    • David, If you look on the musicians website you will see that it costs a little more than $1750 a month to insure a family on the FWSO health plan. 1,750 x 12 = 21,000. Management wants to reduce base salary this year to $50,000. 21,000 is 41% of 50,000

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      • That really is appalling. If the musicians are paying $21,000 a year for their family policy, what percentage is the management paying? Anything at all?

        In my 43rd year as a member of the Chicago Symphony, I’m not surprised that the newspaper would give such a one-sided and biased report on the strike.

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  5. Pingback: The Star-Telegram Strikes Again | Mask of the Flower Prince

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