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Home » Symphonic Services Division » The Care and Feeding of Solidarity

The Care and Feeding of Solidarity


by Jane Owen, AFM Symphonic Services Division Negotiator

What does unity look like for an orchestra? To our public, we appear unified in our formal attire performing with unity of thought and action. As any musician who has attended an orchestra meeting can tell you, however, that unity is always a work in progress.

In its makeup, the orchestra is already divided into the groups of strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion, as well as distinctions of those who are section musicians and those who hold principal or assistant/associate positions. In some orchestras, there are different tiers of contracts for members of the bargaining unit. Additionally, there are musicians of different age groups, gender, religion, and family configurations, and they all may bring different issues to the table. The challenge sometimes is to agree that we are in one union, and to find the collective path of bargaining to achieve the best outcome for the group as a whole.

This is a task which falls necessarily to the orchestra committee with the help of other union representatives in the group. We are reminded of the need for unity every time we are involved in a negotiation, especially in a difficult negotiation, but nurturing that unity is sometimes set aside in those years between negotiations. We’ve all been there; you want to take a break after a long negotiation, but this is not the time for a break. This is the time to get to work to maximize your power for the next negotiation. The more management sees the orchestra musicians communicating and working together, the more strength those musicians have at the bargaining table.

In the words of my colleague, AFM Negotiator/Organizer/Educator Todd Jelen, “We in SSD encourage orchestras and their committees to work with a negotiator during the last year of your contract to help with negotiation preparation, but internal organization with the musicians needs to be happening from day one of a new contract to ensure that the next negotiation can be as successful as possible.” Jelen observes that in addition to the basics of administering the CBA during the term, the following organizational tasks need to be done prior to the next negotiations:

• Discuss and evaluate objectives not achieved in the last negotiations.

• Organize new musicians through
orientations and discussion of
current/recurring issues.

• Track past and new issues in the workplace.

• Track importance of issues to musicians.

• Discuss and evaluate past
goals/strategic plan for musicians.

• Assert or re-assert goals/strategic plan of the musicians.

At the beginning of every season, all musicians must know who their orchestra committee representatives are and how to communicate with them. Identifying the union steward and members of other committees or liaisons to the management or board of directors is also important. This is especially true for new members, who may have only met management personnel in their introduction to the orchestra. Be sure your new colleagues know whom to go to with questions or problems, and that they know their Weingarten rights to have union representation in any meeting with management that could lead to discipline.

Communication with and connection to the local is critical as well. Some managements will try to divide the musicians from their local by requesting that the musicians negotiate without a union presence. While orchestra committee members act as agents of the local in the workplace, the agreement is between your local and management and they are the signatories. Therefore, involvement of the local is mandatory and crucial to the process. Be sure all musicians know who their local officers are and how to communicate with them. Encourage musicians to attend meetings of the local. Many orchestras have members who run for local leadership positions as officers or as board members. Unity of purpose is invaluable when bargaining.

Organizing requires two components: identifying key issues to the population and talking with our colleagues directly. This is much easier to do in our workplaces than in some others if we plan ahead. To encourage unity between negotiations, it is important to take reports back to the musicians after any important committee meeting with management, or after any resolutions of problems or grievances that occur.

Encourage musicians to come to the committee with concerns or questions. Maintaining regular communication makes it more likely that participation in surveys will be more complete when negotiations come around. As for those surveys before negotiations, try to ensure that all the musicians are heard. To achieve more complete participation for the pre-negotiation survey, some orchestras offer individual interviews by orchestra committee members with musicians to complete their surveys. Ongoing communication with other orchestras across the AFM through ICSOM, OCSM/OMOSC, and ROPA also promotes unity across the industry.

In order to approach a negotiation with focus, keep good records of goals not yet accomplished, document administrative challenges with the current agreement, and know the priorities of the musicians as seasons progress. Your power lies in that knowledge and the collective support for those goals.