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July 31, 2023Stephen Laifer -
For orchestra musicians, the first line of communication with management is typically the orchestra committee (OC). Many times, the OC is also the first line of defense. Such was the case recently with Fort Wayne Philharmonic (FWP) in Indiana. The orchestra’s musicians, members of Local 58 (Fort Wayne, IN), were faced with an intractable board and management with a long history of bad practices, and the seven-person OC found itself responsible for leading their fellow musicians to resolve a mounting crisis.
Before examining the specific situation in Fort Wayne, it’s useful to look at what an orchestra committee is, and what it does. AFM musicians working under a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) are represented by their local union, which has the legal responsibility for bargaining and enforcement of the CBA. The OC—also sometimes known as a players’ committee—is a body of musicians elected by their colleagues to assist the local in the negotiation and enforcement of the CBA.
In addition to assisting the local in bargaining, the committee can help facilitate communication, serving as a liaison to management, local union, and musicians. In that capacity, the OC works together with the local in handling grievances, management requests for variances from CBA terms, and other issues that may affect the day-to-day running of the organization (e.g., changes in scheduling or requests for overtime).
In the FWP, the committee (aka Players’ Association) consisted of six elected members of the orchestra: principal clarinet Campbell MacDonald; principal bassoonist Dennis Fick (also ROPA delegate); timpanist Eric Schweikert; harpist Anne Preucil Lewellen; oboist Pavel Morunov; and violist Deb Welter. A seventh committee member, percussionist Kirk Etheridge, had a term expiring from a previous committee, but stayed on for negotiations as per FWP Players’ Association bylaws.
MacDonald, who currently chairs the committee, joined the orchestra in 2004 and has been an OC member for 15 years. He says that to understand the orchestra’s problems, one needs to look at the history of the organization—one characterized by years of unreasonable contract demands from management. “After the pandemic, our season length was stuck at 28 weeks, down from the previous 33,” says MacDonald. “FWP management wanted to continue with this. They liked the truncated version of concert offerings, and made it clear they had no interest in expanding our season. In addition to agreed service rate freezes, this shortened season put our annual pay many years behind.”
Initial wage offerings, MacDonald explains, were for zero percentage increases. “This, even though the orchestra is in good financial condition, with a $5-$6 million budget and endowment of $30 million. The orchestra’s financial stability and historical support is well-established.” FWP, moreover, indicated its desire to turn three full-time positions into per-service jobs, asserting that they didn’t work enough to be full time. “We were obviously offended,” says MacDonald. “These have been full-time positions for many years.”
A third component of the unrest—and the big sticking point with musicians, says MacDonald—was management’s intent to gut musician protections through dismissal proceedings, tenure review, and bargaining rights, replaced with expanded management protection clauses. “In short, more power for management, less protection for us,” he sums up.
OC member Fick, a former OC chair, has been a member of the FWP since 1978. He brought to the table a decades-long institutional memory of the organization, a crucial link to past board and management teams that may have tried similar bargaining tactics.
“This whole situation has a long history,” says Fick. “It really goes back to 2001. We had, at that time, a manager/CEO who had been running the orchestra in the black for 20 years. But 2001 was the beginning of a run of deficits.” He says, prior to that year, the Fort Wayne Philharmonic was essentially the only entertainment in the city, and revenue from the orchestra’s pops series kept it in good financial condition. “However, other entertainment options began to start up. Once there were more options, fewer people came to our pops shows.”
Added to this, he says, was an undercurrent from several people on the board who didn’t like that the orchestra successfully out-competed other nonprofits in town. “There was interest from this contingent in shrinking the size of the orchestra. They hired a new CEO whose basic mandate was to do exactly that.”
Musicians resisted, and Fick says there was a period of drift, with minimal fundraising and no capital campaign for more than 15 years. “Then, they hired another new CEO who led the board in its decision to use endowment money to pay off the orchestra’s accumulated debts, along with additional funds, which covered future deficits for about three years. He eventually declared that we had a structural deficit that needed more shrinking.”
Finally, COVID-19 arrived in 2020 and FWP musicians were playing under an expired contract. Fick says management seized on the pandemic to finally accomplish what they were after. “We were actually close to a deal for a new contract, then they suddenly took it off the table and furloughed the musicians.”
MacDonald says in the fall of 2020, management shifted to all-out assault. “The FWP wanted to throw out the entire contract and start from scratch with just 15 full-time players,” he says. “It was the most aggressive attempt we’d ever seen to totally reform the orchestra. We were at our weakest, as were so many other performing artists in the pandemic.”
Another year passed, and management finally agreed to a short-term deal, a three-year contract running from 2019-2022. But, Fick points out, they were already in the third year of that contract. “We informed them that we considered this to be a one-year deal for COVID-19. The FWP wanted it to be permanent, and a starting point for future negotiations. So, the battle lines were set.”
Negotiations accordingly began last August for a new agreement. FWP management predictably offered a two-year agreement with no raises and remaining at 28 weeks of work. “That was bad enough, but the real issue then became taking away many of our rights, while expanding management rights and giving them overbearing control outside industry standards,” says Fick. “In early December, after three months of unproductive bargaining, we finally had to accept that our only option was to go on strike.”
Bargaining continued during the strike. By January 2023, FWP management had made a financial offer that the musicians could accept, but still refused to budge on the nonmonetary demands, including musician protections. Luckily for the musicians, says MacDonald, they were already experienced in organizing themselves, after decades of dealing with attacks on their livelihood.
“During the pandemic, we had decided to step up our own internal action,” says MacDonald. “This was not going to end, and we needed to organize ourselves.” That was when AFM Negotiator Todd Jelen stepped in, replacing Chris Durham who passed away in August 2020. “Todd was invaluable in helping us understand the kind of work we needed to do. We formed a Self-Care Committee, organizing all our resources to help each other out. From babysitting to car repair and home maintenance, we figured out how to take care of ourselves.”
Other committees, MacDonald adds, included Outreach and Media committees which, among other tasks, produced the musicians’ Players’ Voice newsletter and oversaw their website and Facebook page. The Action Committee organized picketing and other public action, and the Concerts Committee took charge of presenting concerts to the public.
MacDonald says the FWP management continued with a brazenly disrespectful campaign. “They announced a series featuring traveling artists without the orchestra. We retaliated with public action, picketing those shows and reaching out to the artists. Three of them backed out.” The FWP had been driving the story, but MacDonald says the musicians’ visibility changed everything. “The news media showed up, and we found our voice. We continued that over the course of the winter with editorials in the paper.”
Work done during the uncertainty of the pandemic paid dividends. “Organizing positioned us to fight for what we needed, laying the groundwork for our December 2022 strike,” says MacDonald. “We were unified. Everyone already knew what to do. We picketed locations across the city.”
MacDonald says musicians sought to negotiate a resolution with FWP management at the beginning of the strike, but management refused to back down from their demands. “They canceled the orchestra’s holiday concerts, so we hosted our own, which were very well attended. Amid fighting for our livelihoods and the survival of our orchestra, we invited our audience to accept our own gift of music. They showed up to support us.”
Fick stresses that the spontaneous support from other orchestras around the country was equally important. “Several orchestras sent generous donations to our local to help support our striking musicians. This was very important in sustaining our strike, not just financially, but also boosting morale by giving us a sense of community and shared purpose,” says MacDonald.
Over the next couple months, the challenge for the FWP musicians was continuing to underscore their message to the public. “Our values were clear,” MacDonald continues. “The public understood what we were fighting for.”
Management, he adds, further motivated musicians and the community. “They issued statements attempting to portray us as unreasonable, but the public wasn’t buying it. The Philharmonic’s statements were viewed as a disingenuous and incomplete portrayal of the real scenario.” Most importantly, says MacDonald, supporters saw how the musicians’ livelihoods had been affected, and they were appalled. “Community support was overwhelming: letters to the editor, support on our picket lines, financial contributions at our concerts and online, features in local business journals, and responsible reporting from local media.”
In March, a new four-year contract was finally ratified, which expires in 2026. MacDonald says musicians settled on a 30-week season, but the reduction from the 33-week pre-pandemic season has been addressed with increases in weekly salary and service rates. Management gained some increased flexibility for scheduling services—but got none of the outsized control they were after.
He credits the work of the OC and the collective commitment of each of his colleagues. “To make it through something like this, you need to have a high-functioning orchestra committee and involvement from all musicians. That comes from mutual support and creating a culture of solid communication. Everyone needs to know their roles and be comfortable with them, take those roles seriously, and be committed.”
Fick agrees. Over his own decades of committee service, he has compiled a list of what is required to meet crises like these (see sidebar on page 17).
Rochelle Skolnick, the AFM’s director of symphonic services, says one of the best outcomes of this process was ultimately defeating the employer’s management rights proposal that would have given the FWP carte blanche to do a wide variety of things without consulting musicians or bargaining with the union. “This is an employer that has a long history of behaving badly. The OC managed to convey the significance of this proposal, rally their colleagues around the issue, and engage the press,” she says. “They ended up getting management to completely back off and revert to contract language that had been in place for decades.”
Unfortunately, adds Skolnick, who grew up in Fort Wayne and has long ties with the orchestra, the orchestra’s troubles might not be over. “For decades, the FWP has performed in the Embassy Theatre, a beloved venue in Fort Wayne and one of the anchors of downtown revitalization. In May, FWP management announced they were unable to come to terms with the theater for next season, and concerts would instead be at the Purdue campus, nowhere near downtown. To some of us who are watching, it appears that since management couldn’t weaken the orchestra through bargaining, they are now trying another strategy.”
MacDonald hopes that past organization will help meet future challenges. “We understood that it was up to us to bring our identity to the public. Many people didn’t even know we were unionized. It’s crucial to create an identity through activities: public service and support for others in the community—what we are and what we are all about,” he says.
Fick adds that it’s imperative to recognize that nobody else is going to do this work. “We have to lay the groundwork and drive it. When you’re organized in the labor sense, not just active but proactive, and everyone understands what you’re fighting for, that creates power at the negotiating table.”
Concludes MacDonald, “I believe in being fully invested. There are no shortcuts and no magic bullets. It’s not about having tea with the right board member. It’s about taking care of business.”
Veteran Fort Wayne Philharmonic bassoonist Dennis Fick of Local 58 has served on orchestra committees for decades. He believes several ingredients are crucial to the effective makeup of an orchestra committee. These ingredients contribute to efficient communication with and involvement of orchestra members, positive relationships with the community, and ultimately, successful contract negotiations with management.
Organize. “Tackle this well in advance of negotiations,” advises Fick. “Aside from the OC [orchestra committee], musicians need to take active roles on other committees with tasks that support your goals.” The FWP musicians’ Outreach Committee, for example, published an e-newsletter reaching their patron list and supporters with information telling their side of the story, while their Self-Help Committee was crucial in helping musicians understand the need to prepare their finances for a possible work stoppage.
Communicate. “Make sure everyone in the bargaining unit understands your message and can communicate it succinctly. Also, be in touch with your community. Cultivate the public, make friends with them, and get them on your side.” Fick says that the Fort Wayne musicians had already been “picketing” for years before the strike with friendly messages and leafletting. “We welcomed audience members to our concerts, gave them news about what was happening, and invited them to the musicians’ website and Facebook page for more info. Making our case was admittedly easier because the FWP management behaved so badly.”
Unionize. By this, Fick means take advantage of all that the AFM offers. “The AFM’s Symphonic Services Resource Center has extremely helpful info, along with personnel standing ready to assist with messaging platforms.” Possibly most important of all, says Fick: join the AFM Strike Fund. “Join as early as possible and at the highest level you can afford. This was an important factor in helping us to stay on strike as long as we needed to get a fair deal.” A good working relationship with your AFM local is also crucial. “Local 58 has supported us in every way, including providing meeting space, and nurturing relations with other unions in the area through the Hoosier Heartland Area Labor Federation, our Central Labor Council. Many members of other unions joined us on our picket lines.”
Prepare. “In addition to the Strike Fund and individual financial preparation, it’s vital to build the musicians’ internal war chest well in advance of any action. This gives you immediate power to underwrite your own expenses for leaflets, signage, and concert production. It also provides funds to assist musicians most at risk with vital needs like rent, utilities, and health care. We started our fund around 2001 and have been building it ever since.”