Don't try this at home

We’re having an interesting couple of weeks here in Wisconsin, as has been reported not only by the usual suspects but by the BBC and Al-Jazeera as well. Here was my favorite sign from my visit to Madison on Saturday:

Today appeared a life lesson in the form of some frank talk by our Governor during a phone call with someone he believed was a big financial backer his plans to get his legislation passed:

…an interesting idea that was brought up to me this morning by my chief of staff, we won’t do it until tomorrow, is putting out an appeal to the Democrat leader that I would be willing to sit down and talk to him, the assembly Democrat leader, plus the other two Republican leaders — talk, not negotiate — and listen to what they have to say if they will in turn — but I’ll only do it if all 14 of them come back and sit down in the state Assembly. They can recess it, to come back if we’re talking, but they all have to be back there. The reason for that is, we’re verifying it this afternoon, but legally, we believe, once they’ve gone into session, they don’t physically have to be there. If they’re actually in session for that day and they take a recess, the 19 Senate Republicans could then go into action and they’d have a quorum because they started out that way. Um, so we’re double checking that. But that would be the only, if you heard that I was going to talk to them, that would be the only reason why. We’d only do it if they came back to the capital with all 14 of them. And my sense is, hell, I’ll talk to them. If they want to yell at me for an hour, you know, I’m used to that, I can deal with that. But I’m not negotiating.

So what’s the life lesson (aside from verifying who you’re talking to before spilling the beans, of course)? It’s simple. No one who he ever needs to make a deal with in the future will ever believe him.

Obviously the Democrats he intended to trick back to Madison won’t ever believe him again. But there are plenty of Republican legislators who are going to have to negotiate with him over different issues. They’re not likely to believe anything he says either.

Obviously bad faith tactics like this are not a partisan issue. And, in labor negotiations, lying to the other side is not a tactic engaged in exclusively by management or labor. But there’s probably no single thing so damaging to a bargaining relationship as flat-out deception.

I suspect the belief that DSO management had been deceptive was partly behind the latest rejection of management’s latest offer. That’s not to say that management had actually been deceptive, of course – there are lots of possibilities for mis-communications in any relationship, much less one as tense as those between management and the musicians in Detroit. But the musicians clearly believe they were deceived, as the press release from the AFM makes clear:

Although Senator Carl Levin and Quicken Loans owner Dan Gilbert had stepped in last week to help broker an agreement, DSO management did not show up at face-to-face meetings with the arbitrators until the third and final day. Then, management waited until Levin and Gilbert had left the meeting to make significant changes to the proposals the two had worked on.

We had an example akin to this here in Milwaukee many years ago. We were booked to tour Japan, which for us was a huge deal. There was no language about international tours in our contract, so we negotiated some. One of the points we raised was if the musicians would get frequent flyer miles for the plane tickets that management bought (a significant point, given the distance to Japan from Milwaukee). Our management repeatedly told us they were “working on it.” And indeed they were – one of our musicians finally called the travel agent handling the trip about a related issue and was told that management was trying to capture all the frequent flier miles for their use.

We never believed anything that manager told us again without verification. The subsequent negotiation for the main CBA was as difficult as you might expect, and much harder (and longer) than it needed to be.

It’s tough to negotiate with people who never say “yes” to anything. But it’s almost impossible to negotiation with them when you can’t believe them when they do say “yes,” or anything else either.

Does that mean that negotiators, managers and union representatives have to tell the whole truth all the time? Not exactly. There’s lots of spinning that goes on in negotiations (“my folks will never accept that” being a classic example). But spin is not deceit, nor is spin the equivalent of a broken promise. What can’t be done is telling the other side something that they depend on and act upon , only to have the rug pulled out from under them by you.

Negotiations in orchestras are more about long-term relationships than any substantive item on the table. Don’t forget it.

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