Seattle and the Union

Negotiations in Seattle seemed to have reached a rolling boil, judging by this article. Equally interesting is a recent post by Zachary Carstensen, a Seattle arts reporter, on the situation:

However, just before the start of the 2009-2010 season, my own opinion of the orchestra’s health began to shift. The SSO had only just begun the search for Schwarz’s replacement after he announced the year before he wouldn’t seek to extend his contract after 2011. In recent weeks, other signs of ill health surfaced, particularly with the revelation that SSO president Thomas Philion would step down at the end of his current contract in June 2010. Most recently, I patched together details of stalled contract negotiations between management and the musicians. These revelations have put me in a pessimistic mood.

The Seattle Symphony, its management, and board directors stand at a crossroads. Soon, the future of the orchestra will be decided by a handful of critical decisions. The course set in the next few months will determine whether the SSO can shed itself of it’s provincial mindset and compete with the likes of Pittsburgh, Dallas, Minnesota, Saint Louis, and even San Francisco for talent and attention.

He goes on, in response to a comment, to talk about Seattle’s non-affiliation with the AFM:

While I would say I am more of a musician partisan on this issue, I wonder if they haven’t hurt themselves by not resisting cuts more clearly in the past and associating with a stronger, national union. Union management is done by the musicians themselves. A union is a large, complex entity with its own politics and divisions. Managing a union is a full time job in itself and currently this work is being done by musicians who already work a full time job playing an instrument. Would the musicians be in a stronger position if they had outside support for the work they do? It is a question I have wrestled with in the last week.

Say “Seattle” to anyone actively involved in AFM affairs and what comes to mind (and stays there) is the SSO’s decision in 1988 to de-certify the Seattle local of the AFM. Contrary to what many believe, this didn’t mean that SSO musicians were going non-union; no orchestra musician with a functioning cerebral cortex would willingly forego the protections of unionization. The de-certification was coupled with the formation of a new union, the International Guild of Symphony, Opera and Ballet Musicians (IGSOBM, for fans of strange acronyms).

For the past 20 years, SSO musicians and the AFM have danced a very peculiar tango. The AFM has alternately courted and ignored SSO musicians, while they in turn have bounced between kicking the AFM and playing footsie with the AFM and ICSOM, especially when showing some leg might help them in contract negotiations.

Making things much more complicated was the development of a non-union film scoring business in Seattle by two SSO musicians, which has come to mean a fair amount of work for a number of SSO musicians – work they would likely have to give up if they returned to the AFM. At the same time, the existence of that non-union work has been a red flag to AFM bulls, making rational thought about the SSO doubly hard for the AFM, which, like most democracies, is not great at rational thought in the face of provocation.

But the actual impact of not being in the AFM on the SSO is very difficult to analyze. Most orchestras are functionally identical to Seattle in the sense that the union is really a shop local for almost all purposes. Most full-time AFM orchestras have almost as little contact with the national union as does Seattle; that’s just not how our business works. The major difference is that AFM orchestras are bound to national media contracts that don’t affect Seattle directly. That mattered more in 1988, when Seattle decertified, than it does now. But it didn’t matter all that much in 1988 either.

In one way, not being in the AFM has actually helped SSO musicians in their bargaining, I suspect. Because their management can’t advertise in the International Musician, which is still the major job-listing venue in our business, attracting candidates to auditions is harder, and management has had more incentive to pay higher salaries than might otherwise have been the case. But the effect of that exclusion from the IM was likely minor even 20 years ago, and far more important in an era without the Internet.

Seattle’s real problems have nothing to do with their union status, and being in the AFM would not have helped the musicians address them sooner. For reasons that are opaque to the outside observer, the SSO is a troubled institution. It is clear that they can’t hold on to top management talent. It is clear that they have a board that is not very effective in the key areas of fundraising and governance. It is clear that their music director, while very effective in some ways, was there way too long. Above all, it is apparent that the power balance in the SSO between staff leadership, music director, and board has been dangerously out of whack for a long time.

These are things that unions simply aren’t equipped to fix, except with the crudest possible tool, which is a very public and messy job action. Strikes can have the effect of shaking up institutions in positive ways. Hitting a clock with a hammer can sometimes cause it to start keeping time again. But neither is an outcome to willingly bet one’s livelihood on.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

Leave a Reply