Earlier today I ran across this Facebook post from Ed Stephan, Principal Timpanist at San Francisco Symphony. Ed was previously with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra (FWSO) and Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (PSO), and has taken a keen interest in both those ensembles’ respective strikes. Ed does a fantastic job about laying out some real issues involved in these disputes; but beyond that, he provides a powerful testimony about why the arts are important. With Ed’s permission, I’m reposting his piece here, to give it the audience it deserves. —Scott Continue reading
Yesterday, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram published an interesting letter regarding the ongoing Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra (FWSO) strike. It came from Mark G. Nurdin, chairman of the executive committee for the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra Association (FWSOA). This is, essentially, the voice of management.
And I found it to be, well… problematic.
I have no interest in smearing or attacking Mr. Nurdin… a man I’ve neither met nor corresponded with. But as someone who has worked in nonprofit management—particularly arts nonprofit management—for many years, and as someone who serves as President of the Board of a music group here in Minneapolis, I feel I must respond to his points. Continue reading
Same song, different verse… yet another round of labor disputes is rippling through the world of classical music. Earlier this month the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra went on strike, and today the venerable Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra went on strike too. [Edit: Scant hours after this posted, the musicians of the great Philadelphia Orchestra also declared a strike… although it was resolved 48 hours later.]
Something I’ve noticed… each time news of a strike, lockout, or even difficult negotiations breaks out, there’s a chorus of people unfamiliar with the business of running an orchestra who, after hearing a couple of sound bites bandied about in the press, decide musicians are wildly overcompensated. Again and again, these people ask, “Where can I get a job with 10 weeks paid vacation, full benefits and $70K, $100K, [or whatever the so-called ‘inflated’ salary is that’s been ripped out of context and floated around by the press]?”
When we’re lucky, these folks are asking this as an honest question. When we’re unlucky, it’s simply a sarcastic retort meant to belittle the musicians.
A few thoughts. Continue reading
I’ve had the… um, “pleasure” of witnessing several classical music labor disputes, in a variety of locales, in a variety of guises. Most obviously, my personal and professional connections to the Minnesota Orchestra gave me a front row seat to observe its near-disastrous, 16-month lockout… but I’ve also been drawn into similar battles in Atlanta, New York, and elsewhere. I thought I’ve pretty much seen it all.
Well, I’ve just witnessed a new low. I’ve never seen a CEO so openly denigrate members of the community, nor so deliberately and maliciously slander a private member of the public simply to score points in a labor dispute.
I have now. Let me explain. Continue reading
Just days ago, I wrote a blog post on the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra (FWSO) strike—specifically arguing that an article posted by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram as “background” was little more than the transcription of the FWSO management’s talking points. It covered only one side of the dispute. There was no attempt to show the background of the musicians who had actually called the strike… or for that matter, provide an acknowledgement that they and their side of the story even existed. I had hoped that the Star-Telegram would rectify the situation, ideally by interviewing the musicians or at least presenting the musicians’ talking points as listed on their website and on social media.
Clearly, my hope was in vain.
Today the Star-Telegram doubled down on its one-sided coverage of the dispute. It published a jaw-dropping hit piece with the title—seriously—of “Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, RIP.”
I suppose we should be grateful that the Star-Telegram editorial didn’t lead off with the title, “Striking Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra Musicians Break Open the Seventh Seal.”
Again, let’s leave off the particulars of the actual strike…there is no part of this editorial that isn’t seriously flawed. It is not just a prime example of bad optics; it also displays terrible judgment, provides factually incorrect information, and demonstrates a willful ignorance of broader industry trends.
Not bad for a 350-word editorial.
Let me provide a few examples of why I find this piece so problematic.
“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.
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. Continue reading