Labor disgraces no man; unfortunately, you occasionally find men who disgrace labor.
-Ulysses S. Grant
For up-to-date coverage of the WCO strike situation, be sure to visit the musicians’ website (not the management’s site): wcomusicians.wordpress.com
As I write this post (October 1, 2008), the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra is on strike. Here’s a summary of the the issues precipitating this strike:
THE MUSICIANS OF THE WISCONSIN CHAMBER ORCHESTRA-
WHY WE ARE ON THE SIDEWALK THIS EVENING INSTEAD OF THE STAGE
The musicians of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra have a deep commitment to the WCO, and in particular to you, our most loyal audience. Our wages and benefits are meager – only $10,000 – $15,000 per year – but our dedication to music in the Madison community is large. For years we’ve had a positive and respectful relationship with management, and we’ve always resolved our contract negotiations without incident.
What’s different this time? The Board’s outside negotiators are insisting on extreme positions that would put Madison out of the mainstream:
· Work rules that would make it impossible for WCO musicians to fulfill their obligations to the WCO and to their music students, teaching jobs or other music endeavors. All over the country, orchestras like the WCO have rules that allow their musicians to patch together a living by adding income streams from teaching and other engagements to their small orchestra salaries. Why won’t WCO do the same?
· Travel reimbursements far, far below industry norms.
· Refusing to implement a fair system of peer review on musical performance – systems that are accepted throughout the nation in large and small orchestras.
We have, in good faith, tried every known method to reach an accord with the WCO on these and other issues, and we believe that our Executive Director, Doug Gerhart has done likewise. We do not understand why the Board of the WCO has, in our opinion, allowed the outside firm of Foley & Lardner to create obstacles to agreement, to force WCO out of the mainstream, and to jeopardize the once-excellent relationship between the musicians and management.
It is our desire to resolve this dispute and to get back to performing for you, our loyal audience. You can help us with our situation; please write Executive Director Doug Gerhart at firstname.lastname@example.org and urge him to come to a reasonable accord on a new contract with the WCO musicians. Thank you for your continued support of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and its musicians!
The Musicians of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra
By the time you read this, the situation may have been resolved. As a fellow performing musician struggling to make ends meet with a variety of part-time jobs, I stand in solidarity with my colleagues in the WCO. What I hope to accomplish with this post is to take a step back and look at the situation from an outsider’s perspective. How did things come to this?
Let’s find out.
Why Single Out the WCO?
I tend to avoid singling out specific ensembles in my writing, for two main reasons:
1. While I usually have one particular ensemble or organization in mind when I write a post, situations I write about usually apply to many other groups. If it’s not necessary to single out a specific organization for something negative, I tend to keep their name out of it.
2. My site has a lot of “Google juice”, meaning that posts from this blog tend to show up prominently in web searches for that particular topic. Sometimes they will even show up above the organization’s website. I don’t want my little story about some wacky thing about group x, y, or z to pop up above the group’s actual website when patrons are searching!
The tangled web of problems surrounding management’s treatment of the musicians in the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra have been making headlines in local papers, and I have many colleagues that play for this group. I’ve also had many people forward information about this group to me over the years. I’ve therefore decided to weigh in about this ensemble and the prickly labor situation in which it is enmeshed.
The most puzzling thing about this dificult situation is how arbitrary many of the demands that management makes seem to an outside observer. I work with many ensembles with a season and operating budget similar to the WCO, and I just want to scream “WHY?!?” when I hear about the scattered and capricious demands placed upon the musicians by management.
My Perspective…..Take Two
I’ve actually written (complete with snarky illustrations and testimonials) and then discarded a lengthy post about this ensemble recently, deciding that it was too catty and negative in tone. I get kind of irrationally annoyed at the practices of the management in this group.
Here’s the thing–this orchestra is made up of a great bunch of musicians and really great people. The ensemble is well-supported by the community. They have a beautiful new hall in the tony Overture Center located in downtown Madison. There is absolutely no reason why this couldn’t be a positive experience for all involved. The culture and attitude of this group’s management is utterly baffling to me. To me, it’s a perfect example of how to not manage an arts organization, and it’s remarkable how those at the “helm” of this organization are able to take such a potentially good situation (great musicians, good community support, new facilities) and make it so bad.
Rather than being a positive experience for musicians, however, working for the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra is a frustrating experience on a variety of levels. The management of this ensemble seems to go out of their way to make the experience difficult for the musicians. Why? It’s unclear, but this group has had rough labor/management relations for many years. In fact, when the phrase “Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra” is uttered in the company of northern Illinois or southern Wisconsin freelance muscians, people roll their eyes and groan,
“Oh no, not those guys…..”
Why is there such a negative impression of the WCO management in the region? We’ll get to that in just a bit….
Give a Little, Take Away a Lot
A relatively recent WCO contract featured a substantial pay raise–the per-service scale nearly doubled in a few short years. Awesome, right? Well, the problem was that this raise came at the expense of many other factors, some of which are causing real trouble for the orchestra members.Can a high pay scale make up for everything? It’s an important factor, but certainly not the only one. Where is the tipping point? For the members of the WCO, it may have already been reached.
Here’s a summary of the current labor situation for the WCO. Principal bassoon Todd Jelen sums up the issues in question in this news item. Things have gotten worse since this was published, but it’s a good summary of their pre-strike concerns:
WCO contract negotiations stall; strike possible
September 24, 2008
Just over a week before opening its Masterworks Series on Oct. 3, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra could be faced with a musicians strike.
The contract for the core group of 34 orchestra members, not including substitutes and extra players, expired on Aug. 31. It has not been renewed due to several sticking points, including a pension plan for musicians and a requirement that they attend 90 percent of all rehearsals and concerts.
Todd Jelen, principal bassoonist and a member of the chamber orchestra players committee, said the two sides — orchestra members and staff — have been negotiating since early March. They’ve even invited a federal mediator, which apparently did little to help.
Now, it’s getting so that a musicians’ strike is possible.
“If they stonewall us, (a strike) is a very real possibility,” Jelen said.
Or, musicians could opt to continue to play under the old contract, which is what they’ve been doing since the end of August.
Management could impose a “best and final” contract offer if a resolution is not in sight, at which point Jelen said the union stewards could elect to ratify it, or move toward strike.
Doug Gerhart, the new executive director of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, said in an e-mail that his staff is working “in earnest to arrive at a new contract for our musicians.”
The two sides have several meetings next week prior to its opening performance on Friday, Oct. 3, featuring Kyoko Takezawa playing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E Minor. The orchestra is scheduled to play in the Capitol Theater at Overture at 8 pm.
The problem with the 90 percent attendance requirement, which perhaps appears reasonable to non-musicians, is that professional musicians often hold several jobs at once. Since orchestras typically don’t pay a living wage to anyone but the conductor and concert master, musicians often teach during the school year and play for several different resident symphonies, sometimes in different states.
Section players and principals generally make $13,000 -14,000 a year (per orchestra), Jelen said. He lives in Akron, Ohio, and plays in three orchestras including the WCO.
For that reason, the 90 percent attendance requirement is “unheard of” and “impossible to maintain,” Jelen said. The WCO produces 29 concerts annually, including the six Concerts on the Square, the Masterworks series and five holiday concerts.
“Orchestras our size expect a little more flexibility,” Jelen said, and in the beginning, they had it. The first year of the recently expired five-year contract allowed them to attend 65 percent of all rehearsals and performances. It gradually went up to about 75 percent per year, then to 90 percent, which has been the requirement for two years.
Another problem is a pension plan for professional musicians. The American Federation of Musicians’ and Employers’ Pension Fund collects contributions from individual orchestras and then pays out of the larger pool to musicians who are members of those orchestras. Jelen said the WCO is currently not participating.
Gerhart came to the chamber orchestra on June 1 as executive director. He said in an e-mail that the group’s policy is “not to comment in the press” on these issues.
“My hope is that these are productive meetings and that we can come to agreement on the outstanding items,” Gerhart said in the message.
Jelen doesn’t conceal his frustration, saying orchestra staff is “stalling” and focusing on inconsequential things. Still, both sides claim to want to negotiate in good faith.
“We’ve said if they have any progressive proposals, we’ll read and consider them,” Jelen said. “Honestly, we’re prepared for really bad things, but we hope it doesn’t come to that.”
Here are the primary issues of concern from my (outsider) perspective. Many of these were mentioned in the preceeding news item. For me, the first two points are the ones that really make my blood boil:
1. 90% attendence policy – Todd summed up the problems with this policy in the preceeding paragraphs better than I ever could. By any standard, expecting 90% attendance for a part-time orchestra that pays $13,000-14,000 with no benefits is completely unreasonable. Anyone actually attempting to earn a living as a performing musician will quickly realize that it is nearly impossible to make such a service requirement. WCO members must find other means of income, and while the most practical option is to become a member of two, three, or more regional orchestras with similar schedules, this extraordinarily restrictive attendance policy makes regular membership nearly impossible. Only folks in metro Madison without other musical employment would be able to satisfy such demands, and even these individuals are likely to run into problems.
90% of such a low number of services essentially means that a musician can’t even take one series off. With many weeks of summer employment (and only a few services for those weeks) but a regular season of only a few weeks of masterworks concerts, missing even one service is significant.
There is a dark side to this 90% attendance policy that I am not going to go into here. Let’s just say that some dirty tactics have been used by managment to coerce WCO musicians in the past….
2. Half pay for subs -As an outsider to the WCO, this point sticks in my craw the most. The per-service rate for non-members is approximately half of what it is for members.
Maybe subs should only play half the notes…or half right notes and half wrong notes. Is that an equitable arrangement?
I find this kind of pay disparity extremely offensive and disrespectful to both members and non-members. It indicates both that this ensemble doesn’t value the musical contributions of non-members and that it pretty much doesn’t care who fills a vacant chair. I know that the musicians of the WCO don’t have this attitude. As for the management, er, well…..
This amounts to a substantial savings for the WCO when as sub is employed. Since it’s a per-service gig, there’s no time off pay, sick pay, or anything of the sort. There’s therefore no rational justification (outsde of pure greed) for this policy.
This half-pay policy is in effect even for musicians (like the tuba position) who play nearly every concert but play instruments not designated as “member” chairs. Lovely, huh? Makes you feel warm all over about this group, huh? Still wonder why this organization conjures up jeers and sneers in the greater professional musician community?
The remaining points on this list are more like minor to moderate annoyances, but they still bear mentioning:
3. The five minute “grace period” – Rehearsals are allowed to run five minutes overtime before any extra pay kicks in. Guess what that means? Yup–WCO rehearsals tend to run five minutes long as a rule, not an exception. Not cool.
4. Misleading advertising or unwillingness to publish complete information – When attempting to place an advertisement announcing WCO vacancies in American Federation of Musicians trade publications, the group was informed that they needed to include the onerous 90% attendance policy in the advertisement as full disclosure to potential applicants. They elected to not place any advertisements rather than include this information. Nice. How are folks supposed to find out about vacancies? And what does this indicate about how management feels about this attendance policy? If it’s a fair policy, why not include it in any audition announcements?
5. No housing allotment – A significant percentage of the musicians in this ensemble are from out of town. Some even travel from Ohio or Pennsylvania to perform with this orchestra. Many part-time orchestras in other regions of the country provide accomodations–either a hotel or a homestay arrangements with orchestra patrons–for out-of-town musicians. The WCO doesn’t. Getting a hotel for a week’s worth of services takes a healthy chunk out of a musician’s final paycheck.
6. Low mileage reimbursement – As stated in the preceding news items, the mileage reimbursement is far below the Federal mileage rate.
7. Hostile management attitude – This has been effectively covered in both the news items and in my descriptions of the methods management has used when dealing with the WCO musicians.
Things I’d get in trouble for publishing
There’s more (a lot more) going on behind the scenes here, but I don’t feel that it’s appropriate to go into any more specifics. All that I’ve written about is public knowledge, and I’ve betrayed no confidences by presenting this to you. Also, keep in mind that this is my personal opinion about the WCO situation. I do not speak for the musicians of this ensemble, and I welcome any commentary and elaborations in the comments section for this post.
Also, keep in mind that this is a blog post that you’re reading, and while I’ve made every effort to publish only factual information, I do so with a clearly stated bias. I’m a musician. A freelance musician. I therefore have a very sympathetic attitude toward the plight of the WCO musicians and a relatively hostile attitude toward this orcanization’s management. In other words, think of this post as a call to action for you. Do some research, learn more about this ensemble, and come to your own conclusions.
I find this situation to be utterly bewildering? Aren’t we all here to make music? Management’s actions convey disrespect and indifference to the needs of their musicians? Why make full-time demands on a job that pays $13,000-14,000 with no benefits? Why gouge subs when the group isn’t paying the absent members anything? Why have such a draconian attendence policy for a part-time gig?
Bass News Right To Your Inbox!
Subscribe to get our weekly newsletter covering the double bass world.