The Cleveland Orchestra strike: underlying issues

A shared vision

On February 2, 2005, Gary Hanson (ED/TCO) paid a visit to the storied offices of the AFM at 1501 Broadway in the heart of NY’s theater district. TCO was in town, set to play Carnegie Hall that evening. Hanson was clearly asking the AFM for forgiveness rather than permission – the meeting took place a mere three days before TCO went public with a vision that was designed to transcend the problems posed by the city of Cleveland’s rustbelt economy and shrinking population and allow TCO to retain its status as one of the world’s elite orchestral brands.

TCO’s strategy was based on an export model consisting of establishing and maintaining multiple annual residencies around the world. Hanson and the musicians knew that they would take some serious heat for setting up camp in Miami, territory formerly occupied by the Florida Philharmonic. Whatever one might think about the ethics of the strategy, it was a step in favor of the art and the institution of TCO. The musicians gave TCO the contract language it required in order to make the plan operational and for his part, Hanson committed to a course of action that would be far more challenging than simply following the well-traveled path of budget cutbacks and salary concessions.

An ongoing issue

Despite the fact that TCO and its musicians clearly have a shared vision for the organization, it is not clear that there is a meeting of the minds about musicians’ compensation. In 2004, TCO was involved in a failed concerted attempt by the “Big Five” orchestras to reduce musicians’ salary levels. TCO has been a participant in other industry-level skirmishes over compensation (anyone remember the Flanagan report?). As documented during this year’s labor dispute, musicians of TCO have continued to face severe downward pressure on salary and benefits. TCO management says times are tough. ED and MD publicly take pay cuts of indeterminate size (15% of what? And for how long?) and ask the musicians to “accept the principle of shared sacrifice.” But perhaps the subtext is actually “We think the musicians make too much money.” By bringing the strike to a quick end and negotiating a multi-year contract, TCO and the musicians once again have put the interests of the organization ahead of desire to gain ground in the ongoing battle over compensation. But it is not likely that the issue has been put to rest.

To be continued…

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Laura Brownell

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