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Home » Orchestra News » Believing in the Mission

Believing in the Mission


As the Minnesota Orchestra returns to work, I am filled with the hope that this year will bring some semblance of normalcy to the symphonic world. If there is anything positive to have come out of the tragic and unprecedented events in Minnesota, it has to be the incredible solidarity and resolve demonstrated by the Minnesota Orchestra musicians. That solidarity was echoed Federation-wide as musicians in other orchestras offered support of various kinds. It rose to a crescendo in that glorious moment at the AFM Convention when locals, player conferences, and individuals came to the aid of the beleaguered Twin Cities Musicians’ Union, AFM Local 30-73. The certainty that musicians will vigorously defend the livelihood, union values, and the high artistic standards they have worked so hard to attain will resonate throughout the symphonic community and hopefully serve as a deterrent to those thinking of locking out musicians.

Cultural organizations require leadership that believes in and supports the institution’s mission. If achieving and maintaining high artistic standards is not a top priority for an organization’s leadership, something is seriously wrong at the core of the institution. It is simply unacceptable to have leadership that believes musicians are fungible and that aspires to nothing more than an orchestra that is merely “good enough” for its community. Ignoring or rewriting mission statements to accommodate a “sustainability” agenda undermines the very reason why cultural institutions exist. If a myopic focus on the bottom line destroys the vision needed to bring sublime symphonic experiences to the communities in which we work and live, isn’t the sustainability cure killing the patient?

No one is arguing that there is no need for fiscal responsibility, but friction arises when the effort to achieve sustainability falls squarely and disproportionately on the backs of the very musicians who create the product. Nowhere has this been more evident than in Minneapolis, the unfortunate poster child for a board getting it wrong. I can’t help but feel that what happened there could have been avoided entirely had the employer’s bargaining team begun with a different approach. What could they have expected when they arrived at the table demanding cuts of more than 30% and more than 200 work rule changes?

In the face of the stunning leadership failures we’ve seen in Minneapolis and elsewhere, musicians have a natural tendency to try to assume more responsibility for tasks that should and would ordinarily be done by a dedicated and competent leadership team. From self-producing concerts to serving on their employer’s board of directors to assuming staff positions, musicians have taken on new roles, sometimes at moments where it seemed that a failure to do so would have catastrophic consequences. Such was certainly the case with the Locked Out Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra and the series of concerts they brilliantly produced to keep their community engaged and their art front and center.

However, musicians’ moves into roles traditionally filled by board and management raise a host of serious concerns and pose risks different from, but every bit as real as, those created by a leadership vacuum. Our collective bargaining agreements are predicated on labor law’s clear distinctions between employer and employees. As musicians blur these lines by assuming management roles, we risk jeopardizing our employee status and our ability to continue to act and bargain collectively.

Having a “musician liaison” who attends symphony board meetings when appropriate is not only acceptable but recommended; symphonic organizations benefit from hearing and considering the musicians’ perspective. But musicians who serve in such a liaison role must be diligent about acting in a representative capacity, and careful not to allow themselves to become co-opted. In some cases, what begins with one musician in a board liaison role, morphs into several musicians serving on the board with full voting rights. One orchestra has as many as nine musicians on the board. In another instance, musicians serving on the board voted in favor of salary freezes at a board meeting just prior to the onset of contract negotiations. You can imagine the effect this had on the union’s ability to propose raises at the negotiating table.

Over the years, we have seen an increasing number of musicians move into staff roles, some with managerial/supervisory responsibilities. These responsibilities (beyond performing as musicians) have created ambiguities in the employer/employee relationship and can create divisions among the bargaining unit members, damaging solidarity just when we need it most.

A collective bargaining agreement requires a clear, identifiable employer who signs the contract and is separate and apart from the employees the agreement covers. The protections a contract provides to both sides depend upon this distinction. Musicians who consider taking on any functions of management need to be cognizant of labor law and the Bylaws of the AFM and weigh carefully the ramifications and risks. Contract protections, employee status, and solidarity hang in the balance.

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