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11. So many orchestras seem to be going on strike these days. Do you have any feelings about this unfortunate situation?
There is no subject I can think of outside the realm of religion or politics that can result in as heated a discussion as the subject of player/management relations in the modern symphony orchestra. As a member of a full time professional orchestra, I am well aware of the tension and have even served on the contract negotiating committee for my orchestra. In 1981, during my first season with the Baltimore Symphony, I underwent a 17 week lockout by the management. It was not fun, but I say all of this as background so the reader will understand that the view I hold on the subject of orchestra strikes has developed over the years and that I truly do understand the reason why people hold views that differ from mine.
However, because the musicians Union (American Federation of Musicians - AFM) and the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) like to think they speak for all players in American/Canadian major orchestras, and the "need" to show unity and solidarity during contract negotiations has been elevated to golden idol status, I present here a few thoughts of my own on this thorny issue.
The Bible says, "The laborer is worthy of his wages." (1 Timothy 5:18) And I certainly agree. A person doing honest work IS worthy of a decent wage at decent working conditions.. It seems to me, though, that each person has their own definition of what amount of wages a person is entitled to for a particular kind of work. I certainly know the amount of work required to achieve excellence as a performer. I've been working on the trombone for over 30 years, and I have been mortified by low standards among many students and peers over the years (see my FAQ on the subject of performance standards. Some people think that just because they work at something the world owes them a living. It doesn't. Because unless you are doing what you do at a high level, most good jobs will pass you by.
In the case of those who play in symphony orchestras (not just the biggies), most players needed to pass a competitive audition in order to get in. Those who free lance for a living need to pass a similar audition, although they need to satisfy contractors that they not only are competent as players, but that they are reliable as well, show up on time, don't make waves, etc.
There is, then, a separating of the "wheat from the chaff" when it comes to playing. And those who make the cut justifiably feel they deserve their due.
Unions have served many good purposes over the years. For symphony orchestras, the American Federation of Musicians has helped protect players from abusive conductors and managments, provided job security (tenure), consistent working conditions and the like. But, on the down side, unions have had their share of bad stuff as well, charging, in many locals, 3-5% work dues and often squandering it with bad management of their own. Rampant corruption exists in some unions, and the recent decision of the AFL/CIO to flagrantly flout federal law by giving dues money (not just political action committee, or, in the case of the AFM, TEMPO money) directly to elected officials for their political campaign war chests has irked many, many of the union rank and file.
The decision of an orchestra to strike is truly an ultimate issue. Regardless of whether you think the strike issues are real or red herrings, the fact is that when a player goes on strike, he doesn't get paid. In the recent Philadelphia Orchestra Strike (fall of 1996), each member went without over $14,000 of wages. Whether the players feel it was "worth" it is a matter of debate and something that can only be addressed by the players in that orchestra, but the fact is that those players sacrificed a great deal to make their points. The same is true for many other players in countless orchestras who make the "ultimate decision" to go on strike.
However, the public has sacrificed as well. Not only does the public not get to go to concerts during a strike or lockout, but they often find other things to do and don't return to hear the orchestra when it IS back at work. The law of diminishing returns often kicks in during strikes. Witness the major league baseball strike of recent years here in the USA and how the sport is still trying to get fans back in the stands who got disgusted with the way labor and management could not agree to put a team on the field.
Management wants more work for less pay; laborers want more pay for less work. The inevitable tension will always be with us. Things usually work out because both sides realize they have a vested interest in keeping the whole enterprise afloat. But the tension is really this: At what point does the product become so expensive the marketplace won't bear it?
The Boston Symphony has a top ticket price of about $90.00. There will ALWAYS be people willing to pay top dollar for anything. But it is the large middle price range between $25.00 and $50.00 that is the great concern. In an economy with inflation growing at only 2-3% a year, it is difficult to raise ticket prices to a level that will both encourage people to putchase tickets and provide the income needed to meet increasing demands of workers. This is even more true in communities that are smaller than places like Boston where an average ticket of $45 is a big stretch for most concert goers.
The answer, orchestra players say, is to "raise more money." Philanthropy is a wonderful thing, and I'm pleased that the Boston Symphony has recently successfully completed a new campaign to add $100 million to the endowment because they recognize that they simply cannot keep raising ticket prices or the audience will evaporate. But the pot of gold is not unlimited, and even large donors have a limit to what they are willing to give.
So, there is a need for balance. For players to be honest about their needs (as opposed to their wants) and for management to be aware of the fact that they make no music - it is only players who make the sounds the public hear.
A little less selfishness, a little more satisfaction with our lot, a little more looking for life satisfaction in things other than our jobs, a little more humor, a little more time smelling the roses - all these things will help both sides in the labor/worker equation keep things in balance. We need to remember that happiness is a choice.
I have a simple formula when I think about what I would do if confronted with a strike vote in my orchestra. I will vote to strike when not working is better than working under the offered conditions. To me, it's a "no brainer."
I've always thought that the ultimate orchestra contract would consist of one sentence (instead of the hundreds of pages they typically are):
It's not a perfect world (and it's not likely to become one anytime soon), but I can dream, can't I?
In the meantime, I'll keep playing the trombone, keep enjoying life, keep some perspective and not look at everything so seriously. This attitude has helped me through my first 47 years of life without an ulcer, heart attack or stroke. If God spares me, I just might get another 47 years, stay married to my (wonderful) first wife, and someday have grandchildren at my feet saying, "Grandpa, tell me again how it felt to play 'Ein Heldenleben' for the first time."
For more of my thoughts on this subject, see my article THE MODERN SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA: Turmoil, Liberation and Redemption which appears in the ARTICLES section of my website.
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