Who’s an orchestra for?

Labor disputes never bring out the best in employers, and orchestras are no exception. The management of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra is engaging in what looks to me like the illegal practice of regressive bargaining:

The latest issue in the struggle — which led to a strike last Oct. 1 — is the orchestra wants to cut the number of guaranteed gigs. Instead of 75 concerts and rehearsals a year, management wants the ability to offer musicians only 45 performances, or as few as 35 if they gave the musicians six months’ notice. While the pay scale would remain the same, musicians could see their WCO earnings drop by half.

“When they are working for us, they’ll be well-compensated, but there won’t be as many concerts,” [Doug] Gerhart (WCO Executive Director) said. “All prudent groups are (cutting back). We’re not unique. It seems to me that it’s completely fair, reasonable and respectful.”

Bassoonist Todd Jelen, a member of the musicians negotiating committee, said the orchestra is trying to go backwards in their contract proposals. Musicians left the bargaining table last Thursday, Feb. 26, against the request of a federal mediator.

“Our argument is, if the WCO is not in financial jeopardy, they should be able to produce as many concerts as last year,” Jelen said, citing repeated requests to see the orchestra’s financial records. He called the cancellation of the March 27 and 28 concerts retaliation.

I love the “respectful” part. Even more respectful is the lack of any hint that Gerhart’s income from the WCO is going to drop by a penny, much less by the percentage he proposes to slash out of the income of his per-service workers. And yet his workload would diminish significantly by cutting the number of performances, no? So how about making him equally “well-compensated” proportionally to the amount of product he’s supervising?

It reminds me of a famous quote from the old days of 1993-94 in Milwaukee, when our Executive Director at the time told the local paper that cutting the season from 48 to 41 weeks really wasn’t so bad for the musicians: “[the musicians are] not going to be paid less for their work. They’re going to work less.”

Levine’s First Law: All institutions are run for the benefit of those who run them.

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