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Home » Orchestra News » How a Strike in Washington Changed the American Orchestra


How a Strike in Washington Changed the American Orchestra

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In the middle of the 20th century, managers and music directors of American symphony orchestras held autocratic power over their institutions. Nowhere was this more true than in Washington, DC, where the National Symphony was performing under its second music director, Howard Mitchell. Mitchell had been the orchestra’s principal cellist when he was appointed music director in 1949 and he was good friends with many of the musicians. Musicians whom he did not consider friends, however, he mistrusted.

A 1959 tour to South and Central America, with 68 performances in 19 countries, over a period of 12 weeks, proved to be a turning point in Mitchell’s relationship with the orchestra. During the tour, days off disappeared when concerts and rehearsals were added to the schedule. Musicians were told by the management that Local 161 had approved the changes. (They hadn’t.) One added rehearsal took place in an airplane hangar before the orchestra boarded a flight. After finding out that the local had not been consulted about any added services, the orchestra members finally announced to management that they were playing an added concert “under protest.” Mitchell was furious. From that point, the tension between musicians and music director increased, with musician leaders increasingly challenging the absolute authority of Mitchell. In turn, Mitchell worked to quash musician activism through heavy-handed intimidation.

If the 1959 Americas Tour was the turning point in the NSO musicians’ efforts to resist autocratic leadership, the breaking point came in the spring of 1964. What happened in Washington, DC, in that year—now 50 years ago—can be seen as the one of the most significant moments in the history of management/musician relations in the US.

In an attempt to manipulate musicians in his favor and retain power over the orchestra, Mitchell made liberal use of nonrenewal and reseating. Fifteen years into his tenure, more than 200 musicians had come and gone through the orchestra. Only 16 members remained from his first year. Many had left of their own accord (one was quoted in the Washington Post as saying, “I will dig ditches before I play another note for Howard Mitchell”), but many others were terminated or demoted because Mitchell wanted to discourage any player who might consider taking up the cause of better pay and working conditions.

The opening of the 1963-1964 NSO season was delayed by a strike, when contract negotiations broke down. When the contract was settled and the orchestra went back to work, several musicians who had been on the orchestra committee, or had been vocal supporters during the strike, were nonrenewed or demoted. On March 21, 1964, the orchestra met and voted to strike in two days unless the players were reinstated. While the NSO executive board called for mediation, the union said there would be no compromise and the strike would begin if the actions were not rescinded. On March 23, the musicians followed through on their threat, beginning what was to be a five-week strike, the longest work stoppage by any American orchestra up to that time.

Talks were held during the strike in an attempt to reach agreement on a process for review of personnel decisions made by the music director. All the time, the union insisted that, no matter what process might be agreed upon for the future, the actions that precipitated the strike had to be rescinded. The NSO management denied that the actions had been “reprisals,” as the union claimed. Mitchell even explained, “Nothing could be further from the truth. I am a member of the union—so is my wife. I myself played within the orchestra for 16 years before I became its conductor.” The association threatened to cancel the remainder of the season.

Despite attempts by some of Mitchell’s friends in the orchestra to undermine the union’s stand, the musicians held firm. It was actually the association that first put forth the idea of a musician’s review committee “along the lines of one at the Boston Symphony Orchestra,” but it was not willing to rescind the actions affecting the players in question. J. Martin Emerson, then secretary of Local 161-710, said, “You can’t negotiate reprisals.” About three weeks into the strike, the management offered to accept “any other review plan being employed by an American symphony.” By this time, however, the musicians and the union representatives realized that a structure was needed that would give the musicians the ability to make a binding ruling on any appeal of a dismissal or demotion. No such structure existed in an American orchestra.

Many proposals for a review committee were exchanged over the duration of the strike, and even at the moment of the orchestra meeting to vote on the agreement, there were phone discussions to work out one final detail. Management wanted demotion of principal players not to be subject to review, but with the make-up of the committee being eight tutti players and seven principals, it was easy to see that Mitchell would then be able to put pressure on principals to vote against appeals or face reprisal through demotion without the right to appeal. Just before the vote, the management withdrew that proposal. The new “Players’ Committee” was given jurisdiction over any matter of nonrenewal, dismissal, retirement, or demotion of tenured musicians. Any vote by 10 members (two-thirds) of the committee would be final and binding. Other decisions could be appealed to a seven-member arbitration panel.

During the five weeks of strike, there was not a day without an article in one of the three Washington papers—The Washington Post, The Evening Star, and Washington Daily News—and on most days all three had articles. On one day, March 27, there were seven different stories and in total there were more than 120 articles. On Monday, April 27, 1964, the morning after the strike was settled, a large banner headline across the entire top of The Washington Post declared: “Musicians Vote to End Strike.” While the editorials during the strike had been mildly to heavily anti-union, the news articles were very even-handed. And, in the end, even the Washington press coverage for The Beatles’ concert at the Washington Coliseum two months earlier, couldn’t compare with the coverage of what turned out to be the beginning of true job security for American orchestra musicians.

 Bill Foster, National Symphony Orchestra, member Local 171-610 (Washington, DC)







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