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Home » Officer Columns » President's Message » The Struggle in Fort Wayne Is a Struggle for All

The Struggle in Fort Wayne Is a Struggle for All

  -  AFM International President

On May 1, I traveled to Fort Wayne, Indiana, to stand with the musicians of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic as they rallied with hundreds of supporters and unionists to protest unfair treatment endured at the hands of the institution’s management and board of directors. 

Also standing with Philharmonic musicians were Fort Wayne AFM Local 58 President Sam Gnagey and Secretary-Treasurer Bruce Graham; AFM Director Symphonic Services Division (SSD) Rochelle Skolnick; SSD Negotiator Todd Jelen, Regional Orchestra Players Association (ROPA) President Mike Smith; International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) President Paul Austin; local officers from Detroit, Louisville, Toledo, Chicago, South Bend, and Columbus; and AFL-CIO union officials from across the region. (See rally photos on page 12). 

Historically, May Day is a day of unity and togetherness, a symbol of springtime and rebirth, when we also celebrate the gains made by organized labor. But the Fort Wayne rally became a venue for Philharmonic musicians to publicly expose management’s heavy-handed union-busting tactics in their efforts to negotiate a fair contract. 

The most recent agreement expired in August 2019. The parties were close to a deal in February 2020. Then the pandemic hit. Management quickly realized that COVID was just what the doctor ordered—an excuse for “adjusting the business structure” of the institution. That’s management-speak for removing bread from the tables of musicians and placing it on the plates of the managers. 

Musicians and orchestras are invaluable artistic and cultural resources and they should be shielded from the whims of managers and board representatives who think that every dollar paid to a musician is a dollar the manager or the institution doesn’t get. And from what I’ve heard, there is no management plan other than to offer the orchestra less work and less money. 

Philharmonic musicians have been without a paycheck since being illegally furloughed late last summer. Confronted by an institution that saw the pandemic as a guise to obtain the concessions they’d always wanted, orchestra members are organizing to save themselves and the artistic excellence they bring to their great city. Their employer is intent on cutting production costs and imposing regression, thinking it won’t look so bad in a pandemic. Musicians are held hostage to continued salary and health care cuts unless deep contract regression is reached. 

Management is less interested in community care for the art form, but more about preserving capital at the expense of the musicians. The perfection of the orchestra is the reason that capital and assets were built and acquired in the first place, but now the orchestra is seen as disposable, as a liability. 

The trouble in Fort Wayne points to the leadership of the Philharmonic itself, particularly its manager, Jim Palermo, who is supposed to be doing everything possible to improve the relationship between the orchestra, management, and community. Instead, he does the exact opposite. 

Before the pandemic hit, Palermo was said to have remarked that for the size of the city of Fort Wayne, the orchestra was too expensive, had too many salaried musicians in it, and spent too much money on musicians’ health insurance. He failed to reveal that his own salary was $188,000 per year. Meanwhile, orchestra pay was less than it was in 2012. Palermo now hauls off 3.3% of total annual company expenditures, far more percentagewise than most managers do, and more than many institutions that kept their orchestras working during the pandemic. I’d say it is Palermo’s salary that is too expensive for the institution and the town. 

Philharmonic musicians were nearly done with a new contract when the pandemic broke out. Palermo and his board used the COVID emergency as cover to illegally furlough and starve them out, unless they agreed to regressive proposals that would have decimated the orchestra. That’s why the National Labor Relations Board is dragging management into trial to account for what they’ve done. 

Never mind that an overwhelming majority of American symphonic institutions found creative ways to sustain their orchestras and care for musicians while the pandemic raged and ravaged our lives. Many orchestras, similar in size to Fort Wayne’s, continued to perform, fulfilling their artistic mission toward their respective communities. Not so in Fort Wayne. In fact, every time musicians thought they had done the deals to resolve the mess, the company reneged. But not because of money. 

Here’s a company that reported net assets of over $26 million as of August last year, a $1.5 million gain over the previous year, and they had a one-million-dollar improvement the year before that. With a $5 million to $6 million annual operating budget, they have four to five years of cash in the bank to protect the institution, even if not one more dime came through the door. 

That’s certainly enough to take care of the men and women of the orchestra, even under duress, during COVID times. And yes, COVID did affect management’s financial position, but in a positive way. If you’re an orchestra manager, you can line your pockets when you quit paying an orchestra and then collect hundreds of thousands of dollars in PPP money. 

Then there is the Philharmonic’s board chair—Chuck Surack, owner of Sweet- 
water Sound—said to be the biggest online music retailer in the US today. I think it is ironic that someone who owes his success to revenue from sales to musicians and the live entertainment industry, who has built his empire by selling the tools of the trade to musicians across the country, and particularly to Fort Wayne musicians, is directing an attack on the livelihood of those who make the music. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you. 

The Fort Wayne Philharmonic is a community asset, not a liability. It has been silenced because of the misguided attitudes of management. If the dispute continues, there will be irreparable, inestimable loss to the community. 

The struggle in Fort Wayne is a struggle for musicians and workers everywhere. An injury to one is an injury to all. We can meet the challenge by being better and reaching for our potential. We make music to uplift the human spirit. We will uplift ourselves and we will perform perfectly for those who look to us for hope. 

Standing together, we can make a difference. We can make this world a better place. Nothing can withstand the power of our music and thousands of us working together for unity.