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Home » Orchestra News » Resilience, Renewal, and Our Future in Labor

Resilience, Renewal, and Our Future in Labor

  -  AFM Symphonic Services Division Director

Two years ago, as we were only a couple weeks into our first COVID-19 lockdown, I imagined in these pages a triumphant return to live performance and concert attendance in a post-COVID landscape. We have seen a return to live performance—I write this after attending concerts of three of our greatest orchestras in the span of three days, all playing vibrant and moving programs. And there have certainly been many triumphant evenings in cities throughout the US and Canada as AFM orchestras take the stage at full force for the first time after months of silent concert halls.

But what has unfolded over these past two years has been far more complicated than any of us imagined and the notion of a post-COVID world has given way to one in which we learn to live, uneasily, alongside a devastating disease that has shown its ability to upend our plans again and again.

Orchestra committees and locals, assisted by AFM negotiators and other Symphonic Services Division (SSD) staff, have bargained and rebargained (and bargained again) countless side letters, safety protocols, vaccine policies, and even some longer-term CBAs. Musicians have become fluent in electronic ratification processes as they were asked to approve all these documents their representatives bargained to keep them paid, safe, and whole.

As case numbers dropped, we relaxed protocols only to reinstate and strengthen them further in the face of the delta and omicron variants. As I write this, infection rates are extremely low. Some orchestras have begun to make masks optional for both audience and performers, but we warily eye the omicron sub-variant now circulating in Europe.

This work and the repeated trauma we have all experienced in the teeth of this disease have thoroughly exhausted and, at times, dispirited us. But our recent experience has also shown that we and our orchestras are nimbler and more resilient than ever. Can’t fill the hall due to capacity restrictions? Schedule more repeats of the program and use IMA side letter terms to stream the performance! Original soloist can’t travel at the last minute because of COVID exposure? Substitute a different concerto played brilliantly by a member of the orchestra! Too many positive tests and exposures in the winds to go forward with tomorrow night’s Brahms symphony and Beethoven piano concerto? No problem, the soloist and members of the orchestra can play a Brahms piano quintet! Throughout these challenging seasons, musicians (including hardworking librarians) have risen time and again to the challenge of ensuring that audiences have the soul-uplifting experiences they seek when they buy a ticket to one of our concerts.

Many of our orchestras are doing this work with gaping holes in their ranks. The “great resignation” of the COVID era labor market has not bypassed orchestras. Musicians have resigned and retired from orchestra jobs at a much higher rate than usual and because of the COVID-related pause in auditions, those positions have not yet been filled. What this portends for the coming years is a substantial influx of new musicians.

The musicians who join us will bring new perspectives and a very high level of artistry to orchestras. They should be welcomed on their own terms. In each case, those musicians will be joining a collective with its own history. Part of that history is artistic: new musicians step into a stream of those who have made it their life’s work to create and recreate some of the greatest art ever dreamed. But each of our orchestras also has a labor history that delivered the terms and conditions of the CBA governing the musicians’ work and protecting their livelihoods.

As musicians who benefit from that labor history, each of us has a stewardship obligation. First, to know something of that history and the musicians who made it. Then, to share that knowledge with our new colleagues, so that we can all work together to preserve and build on the gains made by those who came before us.

If you don’t know any of your orchestra’s labor history, seek out some of the “old-timers” and ask them what life was like in the orchestra when they started. If you are one of those old-timers, be generous with your recollections about how things have improved over the years. Share stories of the difficult negotiations that brought improvements in the standard of living.

Orchestra committees and locals should be prepared to provide orientation to new musicians as they join the orchestra. Labor history could be part of that orientation. New musicians should be provided with a copy of the CBA, local and players’ association bylaws, contact information for local officers and orchestra committee members, and information about Weingarten rights. Also helpful is an overview of the employer’s organizational structure and suggested resources for daily living in your community: dry cleaners, veterinarians, restaurants, and the like.

New musicians should be encouraged to get involved in the life of the collective, initially by attending meetings and, after attaining tenure, serving on committees. Most important, new musicians should be brought into ongoing conversations about today’s issues and concerns—conversations that will fuel the next generations of orchestra labor history.

Orchestras and their musicians are tough, resilient, and intensely creative. By welcoming new musicians, while also honoring the work of those who have come before, we build a vibrant, living culture that will carry our orchestras strongly into the future.

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