Time to go short?

When I first came into the business, the conventional wisdom (as expressed by Len Leibowitz at many ICSOM conferences) was that it was in musicians’ interests to propose one-year agreements and let management pay for the privilege of several years of labor peace and not having to deal with negotiating committees.

But I don’t think I’ve ever seen that actually tried at the table. Musicians invariably ask for multi-year agreements, especially in concessionary situations – where the goal is to get “recovery” in the out years. This leads to contracts that are back-loaded, sometimes quite shockingly so. (This settlement in Pittsburgh was perhaps the Mother of all Back-loaded Contracts.)

Managements, on the other hand, seem increasingly less attracted by the offer of “labor peace,” which is not surprising in an environment, both short-term and long-term, in which the prospects for orchestras do not appear as sunny as they did 40 years ago. I was re-reading an issue of Senza Sordino from the 1970s, and the list of orchestras on strike was startlingly long. Today, even given the number of orchestras being asked for concessions, the number of orchestras on strike remains at one.

At our last negotiation, our management was extremely unimpressed with the value of “labor peace.” They offered us a one-year contract. We had to negotiate long and hard to get a multi-year agreement, with full recovery delayed to year 4. And our agreement contained, if not a formal re-opener, an agreement that we would talk to them about remedies that might be achieved through collective bargaining should the condition of the orchestra warrant.

We have not been formally asked to re-open. But no one here is taking bets on the prospect of such a request not coming.

The current dynamic seems to be that musicians make sacrifices in order to have the security of multi-year agreements, especially when such an agreement incorporates some economic recovery after concessions, only to have that security taken away whenever management feels that the out years are not affordable.

What is the advantage to orchestra musicians of multi-year agreements if they only tie the hands of musicians and not managements?

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.

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