by Chris Durham, AFM Symphonic Services Division Chief Field Negotiator
Service on an orchestra committee is both an honor and a responsibility. A functioning orchestra committee is an essential component of union democracy within a symphony orchestra. Orchestra committees should be elected with votes cast only by union members who are tenure-track musicians of the unit. When elected to an orchestra committee, your colleagues place their trust in you to carry out business on their behalf. Service on the committee is not just a huge responsibility on behalf of others, it is also a major time commitment.
The role of the orchestra committee is to assist the local (the lawful bargaining agent) in negotiation, enforcement, and administration of the collective bargaining agreement. The committee has a legal responsibility to fairly represent all members, just as the local does. It is not the job of the committee to be a watchdog of the local, but rather to be actively involved in addressing day-to-day issues that may arise. The committee is the eyes and ears of the local on the job. Successful committees are able to shape disparate factions of bargaining unit musicians into a unified collective. The more unified a bargaining unit, the more effective the local and committee will be in their relations with the employer.
The committee and local must have a respectful working relationship with open lines of communication. The local union representative and the committee must immediately discuss major decisions, waivers of the bargaining agreement, grievances, member to member issues, discipline, discharge matters, and more, before any action is taken by either. Periodic reports by the committee to the local union’s board of directors ensure that board members, and thus other segments of the membership, are aware of the successes and challenges faced by orchestra members. The committee should report the activities and issues of other local members to the orchestra.
Active participation with the local labor council (AFL-CIO) establishes relationships with the broader labor community that may be useful in times of need. This also encourages the labor community to attend performances and view the orchestra as part of the greater labor community. Sometimes our lack of participation isolates us and gives the appearance of elitism thus discouraging people who would enjoy our performances from attending.
As a member of the committee it is your role to represent all members, not just the faction that supports you. It is not your place to advance a self-serving agenda. Committee members should be well versed in the history of recent negotiations and gain a thorough knowledge of the bargaining agreement, especially regarding grievance filing and processing and the proper way to address discipline and discharge matters. The duty to fairly represent members is an obligation of the committee, in addition to the local union. Special care must be exercised when dealing with member versus member matters. When a committee member is approached by a member who is having an issue with another member, it must be immediately reported to the local. Together, they will seek advice on addressing such matters.
The enforcement and administration of the agreement doesn’t stop once a negotiation is over. Today, more than ever, we find ourselves continuing through the term of the agreement to do many activities once only necessary (or recommended) in preparation for bargaining. The AFM Symphonic Services Division (SSD) once had a checklist of items to do six months in advance of a bargaining. Today, many of these tasks should be done throughout the term of the agreement. One such critical task is researching the organization’s financials. Through online sources, we can view the employer’s 990 filings and more. If there are musician representatives to the board’s finance committee, they should also make periodic updates and provide financial information to the committee. They should report fully to the local and committee on board activities; if “sworn to secrecy” by the employer’s board they cannot function as our representatives.
With the proliferation of social media we have wonderful tools to enable us to communicate daily with members and supporters. Social media tools of choice—Facebook, Twitter, musician websites, or electronic newsletters—should always be up to date. Effective public information sharing should be ongoing. Databases containing bargaining unit member information; status of orchestra alumni, retirees, and audience members; board and staff contact information; and other supporter data should always be current. Maintaining active relationships with all constituencies is important. Much of this work can be done by members who do not want to serve on the committee, but are willing to volunteer for specific jobs. Our communication should also reach the greater labor community locally, as well as to AFM and player conferences.
The tough work of orchestra committee members should be valued and appreciated by members of the bargaining unit. Members work long hours volunteering to do their best for the welfare of their colleagues. Committees don’t always have good news or news that everyone in the unit will enjoy hearing. Members of the bargaining unit should refrain from attacking members of the committee or placing responsibility for a bad outcome on the committee or its members. In reality, the outcome of a negotiation is dependent on the health and position of the organization and proportionate to the resolve of the unit. Such attacks and blame do not help the outcome, but will likely discourage good and effective people from performing essential service on an orchestra committee.