Category Archives: Labor Disputes

Seven Suggestions for the Baltimore Symphony…That Aren’t About Money

In January 2008, at the height of a Writers’ Guild of America strike, I watched a moment of television that I will never forget.

That moment came during a landmark episode of The Colbert Report, the long-running show in which Stephen Colbert played a satirical caricature of an idiotic cable news pundit. This particular episode discussed how Stephen’s father, Dr. James Colbert, had just been hired as a hospital administrator when he became involved with negotiating an end to the infamous 1969 Charleston hospital workers’ strike. During that time, Dr. Colbert worked – successfully! – with activist Andrew Young to reach an agreement. Nearly forty years later, in the shadow of the WGA strike, Stephen interviewed Young in-character on his show. Video:

http://www.cc.com/video-clips/xw3v9i/the-colbert-report-andrew-young

The whole interview is interesting (if dated in certain ways…), but a couple of Young’s quotes lodged their way into my brain and have stayed there for over a decade.

“I was mayor of Atlanta and cities all over America were striking,” he said. “But a Teamster union organizer told me, ‘Strikes are never about money. Strikes are about respect.'” Young also said, “What your father did was be reasonable, and be humble.”

Strikes are never about money. Strikes are about respect.

Be reasonable, and be humble.

Lately much of the discourse surrounding the ongoing Baltimore Symphony lockout has centered around money: shaming of musicians for wanting to be paid a certain amount of money, concerns that money has been spent or distributed unwisely, tut-tutting at donors for not giving more money. And don’t get me wrong: God only knows, money is important! An orchestra can’t function without money, and a lot of it. The role of money should not, and cannot, be ignored here. Everyone, keep following the money!

But! If the Baltimore Symphony administration focuses on money and the bottom line at the cost of everything else – ignoring politicians’ and donors’ and customers’ and citizens’ concerns over governance in the process – that orchestra’s future will be a small and bleak one.

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The Baltimore Symphony: Burning Gifts and Burning GIFs

As everyone knows, our world is on fire. Sometimes literally, but always figuratively.

The Internet, in its infinite wisdom, has settled upon a metaphor to evoke the broiling ever-present destruction:

The dumpster fire.

The scholarly website KnowYourMeme.com offers the following definition of a “dumpster fire”:

a pejorative term used to describe something as a spectacular failure or disaster, in a similar vein to other colloquial terms like “trainwreck” or “sh*tshow.”

Merriam-Webster is more to the point:

an utterly calamitous or mismanaged situation or occurrence : DISASTER

Needless to say, the Baltimore Symphony lockout is a dumpster fire.

A new vague proposal (threat?) floated in the Baltimore Sun on July 10th is, to my eyes, a potential game-changer. And not just for Baltimore, either: for managements, musicians, donors, and patrons all over the United States.

If what Chris Bartlett, the chair of the Baltimore Symphony Endowment Trust, proposes in this article comes to pass, a philanthropic Rubicon will have been crossed: a blazing dumpster fire fueled. And across that river, and beneath that trash, lay myriads of unsettling, unnerving unknowns.

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The Baltimore Symphony: Three Strikes And You’re Out

The Baltimore Symphony locked out its musicians as of 12:01 AM on Monday, June 17th.

If you’re fuzzy as to the definition of a lockout (as I was seven [!] years ago when I first started writing about orchestral labor disputes), here’s the dictionary definition.

A lockout is:

the withholding of employment by an employer and the whole or partial closing of the business establishment in order to gain concessions from or resist demands of employees

Merriam Webster dictionary

I want to preface the rest of this with my opinion. To my mind, a lockout is the most horrifying, corrosive form of labor dispute. It does not pave the way to a stronger, healthier organization. It is symptomatic of breakdown. Thought of charitably, it is an admission of failure: a confession of incompetence. Thought of less charitably, it is a form of arson meant to quickly transform an organization, or to score political or social points.

That interpretation rings especially true when a lockout happens at an orchestra. An orchestra’s reason for being isn’t to make money, but rather to improve the lives of citizens. The music is the product. Therefore, you cannot lock out an orchestra without simultaneously locking out audiences, the entire justification for the organization’s existence. This simple fact makes orchestral lockouts especially serious and grave.

Because a lockout is such an unspeakably extreme last resort, it is the responsibility of any management team to broadcast the severity of the situation calmly and consistently over a period of years, and then, more importantly, to respect stakeholders and to search tirelessly for equal partners to help fix problems with.

Based on the facts currently in the public domain, that is not the path that the Baltimore Symphony chose to follow. They’ve snubbed the (to my eyes) reasonable requests of Save Our BSO, a group of audience advocates, and many of the Baltimore musicians found out about the upcoming lockout via social media rather than in-person. Obviously, these stakeholders are not being respected and treated as the equal partners that they are.

On June 14th, the Baltimore Sun ran an article with a hugely alarming headline: The BSO’s financial situation was much worse than most people realized, documents and interviews reveal.

The lede is an indictment in and of itself:

Until the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra canceled its summer season, few people outside the nonprofit’s administrative offices realized just how precarious its financial situation was.

my reaction to this information in gif form

Well, um. I guess this blog entry is over, then, right? Honestly, that information is all the information we need to know. It’s strike one. Based on that fact alone, the current leadership is either inept, unfit, or untrustworthy (or all three). Before they reached the cliff, they were apparently unaware of what was going down financially (how?) or unwilling to build bridges with stakeholders to problem-solve (why not?). To my mind, both possibilities are disqualifying, and they signal a need for resignations. Honestly, the Sparknotes version of this entry ends here.

But in case you want to keep going…

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A Note On the Night of the Baltimore Symphony Lockout

Tonight the Baltimore Symphony management announced its intentions to lock out its musicians on Monday, June 17th.

I wrote a Twitter thread about this and thought I’d adapt it for an entry, in case these sentiments would be helpful to anyone who isn’t on Twitter.

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Here’s a message for the Baltimore Symphony musicians and audience advocacy group Save Our BSO on the night that the Baltimore Symphony lockout begins…

These kinds of tactics have been used before, and a decent chunk of us in the classical music twittersphere and blogosphere have watched it happen (and not just in Minnesota in 2012).

Musician supporters are not fighting sheerly for the livelihoods of musicians, as important and indeed as sacred as those are. We are fighting for the preservation of the life-changing blessing of orchestral music that has changed (and in some cases maybe saved) our lives.

What’s happening in Baltimore is awful governance. Baltimore deserves better. Any community deserves better.

I don’t know how this will shake out, and the uncertainty is terrifying, especially for those directly financially and professionally affected by it.

That said, folks will be alongside you to celebrate or to mourn, as the occasion requires.

Keep your allies posted, as best you can, about what the most overwhelming things happening are. We will do our best to help, and to share any wisdom that we happened to accrue while enduring orchestral labor disputes of our own.

We who advocate for the transparent, responsive governance of American orchestras must push back against this failure.

Know that this is deeply, deeply personal for so many of us, whether we’re musicians or patrons.

That knowledge will not pay musicians’ bills. It will not temper the pain of having to leave their families for weeks on end to take sub gigs to survive. It will not secure stable organizational leadership. It will not make the board listen to desperately worried sick patrons.

But I hope that in some small way the knowledge that you are not alone will comfort you. I hope it comforts you to know that you are right to care, and to sacrifice as far as you see fit, and to know that you are not alone.

You are not alone.

Blessings to all. Keep in touch.

-E

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Friends, please stay up to date on this situation! The Baltimore Symphony Musicians’ website is here. The Save Our BSO audience advocacy group website is here. From there you can follow those groups on social media.

If you feel moved, please support transparent governance however you can, whether by reading articles online about the dispute (this helps show the press that people care!), or by liking and sharing social media posts, or by donating money, or by sending letters or emails of support, or by considering doing whatever else these groups suggest the public do. Those are the best ways to help right now. And good thoughts and a few prayers wouldn’t go amiss, either.

Signing off with the hope that American orchestral governance as a whole improves, and soon. There are so many smart, creative people in this field. I hope we can build a future where we can avoid these heartwrenching situations entirely.

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The Baltimore Symphony in the Twilight Zone

ROD SERLING VOICE:

Imagine, if you will. A non-profit dependent on the trust of the community it serves. The product they push isn’t a product at all; it’s an experience created by people. People who have worked themselves to the bone from childhood to perfect their craft. Imagine, if you will, a decision seemingly pointing to deliberate destruction.

*perches coolly on the edge of a desk*

This non-profit is the Baltimore Symphony in the year two-thousand-and-nineteen AD. April twenty-four: management announces a summer season of concerts. May twenty-five: the state government approves $3.2 million to carry the organization through financial trouble. May thirty: the organization’s leadership burns every bridge, to every stakeholder, for reasons yet unknown and unknowable.

*drags on cigarette*

Ladies and gentlemen, you don’t have to imagine. Because…

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Bugging the San Antonio Symphony

In March 2000, a hundred guests gathered for a birthday party at the expansive Tobin estate in San Antonio, Texas. The honoree, colorful sixty-six-year-old philanthropist Robert L. B. Tobin, was battling cancer. Tobin was too ill to attend a traditional party, so guests were shuttled through the property one-by-one to speak with the bedridden benefactor. He passed away on April 26th. (x)

A few years later, the Boston Globe began publishing a series of articles entitled Charity Begins at Home, investigating abuses by officers of charitable organizations. On 17 December 2003, an article appeared in the Globe, squarely taking aim at the management of the Tobin estate: “Trustees’ fees are talk of San Antonio’s elite.” (x)

Two lawyers were in charge of dealing with Tobin’s assets. One was Leroy G. Denman, Jr., who passed away in 2015 at the age of 97 (x). The other was a man named J. Bruce Bugg, Jr.

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Following Up on Leonard Slatkin’s Book “Leading Tones”

Maestro Leonard Slatkin of the Detroit Symphony has just come out with a new book called Leading Tones, and bizarrely, a chapter of it is devoted to the Minnesota Orchestra lockout.

Pop some corn, kids. This is a long entry and you’ll need a snack.

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Pneumonia At The Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra

As we all know, Hillary Clinton was recently diagnosed with pneumonia and, judging from the news coverage, has passed away.

The media is salivating: how long will it take for Tim Kaine to read all the white papers? which Democrats will choose Clinton’s replacement? will the Sanders camp make their move once the funeral director closes her eyes? I mean, technically Hillary walked out under her own power to greet reporters after an episode of exhaustion on 9/11, but that doesn’t really count because… Because. Her pneumonia is clearly terminal, if only because that’s interesting. Plus, her illness, temporary incapacitation, and ultimate death play into pre-established narratives about her reputation, her personality, and her campaign…plus, a presidential candidate dying this close to the election is fascinating (maybe even fun?) to think about…plus, it’s clickbait, promising the numbers of clicks that until now we thought could only come from coverage of the reality TV star candidate. As Alex Ross tweeted today

interesting

The media is grappling with another death, too. The Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra has just gone on strike, and like Hillary, it too has died. Most people would think of an orchestral strike as a bad thing, or a sad thing, but ultimately an eminently solvable thing.

However, the Fort Worth Star Telegram Editorial Board apparently knows better. They’ve already written the orchestra’s obituary less than a week after the musicians called a strike.

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Hartford Symphony: What’s Next?

Today is a big day in the Connecticut arts scene. Absent major musician concessions, tomorrow the Hartford Symphony will begin the process of “clos[ing] its doors – for good.” Today’s firm deadline has been repeated in the press again and again and again.

hartford symphony

Less clear, however: what management means by shutting down. Not giving concerts? (A lockout?) Bankruptcy? (What kind?) Dissolving? Or destroying the old organization to create a new one in its wake? No one in the mainstream media has asked.

Here are some more questions that have been bugging me:

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Hartford Symphony: What the Faq?

Twelve hours ago, the Facebook page Save Our Symphony Hartford posted an FAQ that is hosted on the Hartford Symphony’s website. This FAQ is available to the public, but it’s not linked to on the Hartford Symphony’s main pages, so it’s unclear at this point how widely it was meant to be distributed.

But the cat is out of the bag now, and so here is a screenshot of the first two paragraphs.

faq

If cell memory from a previous life is tingling… Here’s why.

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