The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra management would make a fascinating case study. They seem, to a detached but highly annoyed outside observer like me, to be representative of everything that’s wrong with the orchestra world. It’s too bad–I have a lot of great colleagues in this ensemble, and it hurts me to see what they’ve been going through this past year.
For an interesting exercise in determining public perception of the WCO, just do a Google search on the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and then one on another ensemble like, say, the Chicago Symphony. At least 30% of the top links are negative in nature for the WCO, versus all positive or neutral links (like links to albums) for the Chicago Symphony. These repeated and, from the perspective of the musicians, baffling behaviors from the WCO management are having a serious effect of the reputation of this ensemble. Does the management really want to have the WCO name associated with unfair labor practices, strikes, and cancellations? Do they realize how seriously damaged their reputation is in the music world at this point?
I wrote a post about the strike in the fall of 2008 and had some nasty blowback from people that I can only assume are in the WCO administration or on the board. We’ll see if this post gets any more comments like this. I’m not going to go on an angry tirade about this organization (I don’t have the energy to get worked up right now), so I’ll just post the following press release from the group without any further commentary:
Feb. 27, 2009
Contact: Todd Jelen Phone: 216-314-2000
WCO Management is Retaliating
Against Musicians for Standing up for Their Legal Rights
One step forward and ten steps back.
WCO Management is Retaliating Against Musicians for Standing up for Their Legal Rights One step forward and ten steps back. That seems to be the trajectory of the long negotiations between the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and its musicians on Thursday after management’s negotiators reneged on previously agreed-upon provisions and submitted new proposals on mileage rates and guaranteed work that are less than even the last contract. The strikingly altered proposals made it necessary for the union to take the new provisions back to the orchestra’s rank and file Thursday night. “Since this new proposal could significantly affect musicians’ ability to survive, we felt it was necessary and prudent to consult the musicians before responding,” said Todd Jelen, musicians’ negotiating committee member. “Although they accused us of being unwilling to bargain, the negotiating committee can’t respond to such drastic changes without consulting our members.” Now, instead of 75 guaranteed services, the board’s new contract proposal slashes those services, and the musicians’ guaranteed salary, by 40 percent.
Those guaranteed services could drop 60 percent if the board gives the musicians only six months notice. Local 166 of the American Federation of Musicians is planning to file amended charges of retaliatory bargaining and bad-faith bargaining against the WCO’s board. Even on secondary issues, the board’s newest offer rankles the musicians. Proposing to lower per-mile travel reimbursements from the previously negotiated 20-cents-per-mile to only 11 cents-per-mile has angered Naomi Bensdorf Frisch, a WCO musician who drives 150 miles toMadison from Chicago. Not only does the proposal lower by almost 50% the agreed-upon rate, but the per-trip reimbursement for most musicians would be lower than what was in the previous contract. “It’s an insult to be offered a travel allowance that’s 80 percent below what the IRS says is the standard mileage allowance,” Frisch said. “Moreover, 11 cents a mile does not even come close to covering the costs of gas, tolls, and wear and tear when commuting long distances. The musicians can’t help but think this is management’s way of punishing us. It’s as if the board doesn’t want an agreement.”
According to Jelen, the negotiations, which began over a year ago, have been a “shell game” of submitted and withdrawn proposals by management. As recently as the end of January, the sides were close to an agreement and only had two minor issues remaining. When the musicians and management were unable to reach a compromise on those two issues, management responded by taking the entire contract off the table and threatening regressive proposals and an additional number of unspecified changes. Finally, management asked that musicians provide “unqualified assurances” for the February masterworks concert. When the musicians were unwilling to provide these assurances without knowing what management planned to offer, WCO management cancelled the Feb. 27 concert. The moving finishing line of the negotiations perplexes members of the negotiating committee too, particularly since WCO management has insisted they are not experiencing any financial difficulties and therefore don’t have to provide financial statements to the Union.
According to Jelen, they cite other arts organizations’ recent cutbacks as the reason for asking for concessions from musicians. “In this economic climate, if the WCO is truly not experiencing financial difficulties, they should be doing all they can to preserve as many performances as they can for the Madison community. If WCO’s finances are not a factor, why is the WCO in effect denying live music to the Madison Ballet and Nutcracker patrons? If the changes aren’t financial, the only conclusion left is that the board is simply trying to punish the musicians for not agreeing to their earlier stipulations.” According to legal counsel for the American Federation of Musicians, these tactics constitute retaliation in bargaining.
In this case, the union asserts the WCO’s management, by taking away previously negotiated contract terms, is punishing workers for asserting their legal rights. The management’s action requiring the musicians to guarantee services before a binding contract has been signed also strips the union’s legal right to strike as a counterbalance to the employer’s power. The union anticipates further National Labor Relations Board charges alleging the orchestra’s management engaged in other unfair bargaining practices. These charges will be filed with the National Labor Relations Board in Milwaukee next week.
For more information, visit wcomusicians.wordpress.com, the website of the musicians of the WCO.
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