League Conference: George Cohen on Negotiating

George H. Cohen, formerly AFM counsel, is now the Director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS), which was founded in 1947. He gave this presentation to a large roomful of managers, with about 10 musicians present. It was a pleasure to hear his biting wit take on a serious issue.

George came out of semi-retirement from the Washington DC law firm of Bredhoff & Kaiser to take this position. He was General Counsel for the AFM for many years. He has lived collective bargaining all his professional life, and he loves the intrigue, the drama, etc. He said that it’s great when you see the agreement; this gives him the highest level of self-satisfaction. He has always tried to be as outreaching and pro-active as he can.

He currently has 175 people throughout the country investigating mediation situations and helping people at the end of their negotiations. He also has people on staff who are available before the parties enter negotiations to train people on specific types of bargaining, such as Interest-Based Bargaining (IBB).

George had recently met with Jesse Rosen (President, League of American Orchestras), Bruce Ridge (Chair of ICSOM), Carla Lehmeier-Tatum (President of ROPA), and leaders at the AFM to begin a discourse about the desirability of changing the current negotiation model. Detroit, Cleveland, Philadelphia Baltimore, Charleston, Milwaukee, Hawaii, and more – there have been so many bankruptcies and lengthy strikes lately, that he feels strongly that you shouldn’t sit back an wait until the problems fester and then send out people to help; we all need to more pro-active in creating a better model.

George envisions forming a joint labor-management cooperative committee that would be informal, and would meet a year or more before the contract expires. The union always says “Distrust – you don’t tell us the whole picture.” If you can’t agree on the facts, the likelihood of reaching an agreement is not at its zenith.

This model has transparency and informality; you list the problems and then solve the problems jointly. It has lots of advantages over the adversarial and confrontational model. If you create a different model, one with more information shared in a more informal setting, there is a more constructive likelihood that a problem-solving mentality will evolve.

The size of the bargaining unit for a symphony orchestra is unusual – there are usually less than 100 members. Also, the working conditions in an orchestra are unique – they rehearse, perform, and travel together. The membership has a very high level of education and intellect, and they are concerned about every single working condition.

George went on to describe how he spent more time bargaining for 100 musicians than for thousands of steel workers. It is not infrequent that the musicians believe that they know at least as much, if not more, than the managers. So the musicians and managers ought to be attached at the hip. Because, without the musicians, there is no product, and without the managers, there is no place for the musicians to perform. Athletes and musicians are similar in this context.

The problems that orchestral organizations face are not completely removed from other workplaces around the nation. There have been significant layoffs – employers believe they can make more profit with a smaller workforce that works harder. We now have a healthcare crisis. In the last 18 months, healthcare has been either “the” issue or one of them in 90% of labor negotiations. Employers are no longer in a position to offer free healthcare, so they push for cost sharing. The union response is “shove it” – so it becomes an economic dispute. “If you think we’re going to give that up, you’re going to see us on strike.”

This type of situation cannot be solved 30 days before the contract expires!

But instead of cost sharing, what about cost containment? Establish wellness programs. The workforce will get involved in wellness programs. Form a cooperative committee, be transparent, and work on controlling costs. The AFL-CIO and Chamber of Commerce have agreed that it’s a better model.

George then took several questions from the audience.

Q: Look at Detroit – how do you encourage musicians to be more interested in this collaborative model?

GC: He mentioned again the meeting he had in February with Jesse [Rosen], several managers, Ray Hair [AFM President], Carla [Lehmeier-Tatum, ROPA] and others – we should focus on a different model. His facilitators are ready to prepare the managers for it. If either side asks for help, they would give them help (and notify the other side). He described the process as in a formative stage.

Every success story in labor/management relations has come out of a former disaster – a strike, a lockout, or a complete disaster. Changing the mindset of people is difficult and time consuming. How could we do it differently? It’s a tough world, and “concessionary bargaining” are the wrong words. Managers should be saying, “We have some practical realities that we’re confronting, so you’re confronting them as well. We must work through this together.”

Q: How do you create an environment where people can share?

GC: It’s not just the union and management but it’s also the infamous, notorious board. Typically they don’t show up at the bargaining table.

The trust is not there – you’ve got to walk before you run. Start with the easiest things – relationship building. Sit down and get people to start talking about vision. Begin to identify common ground and themes – keep the real tension issues aside. Once you get people comfortable, instead of traditionally steeling themselves … it’s an evolving situation and may need a facilitator – nothing is more fun.

Orchestras are a bit like the soccer players, when they were at an impasse. He had to figure out how to get them from 0 to 5. So he told each side to go back and list the items they haven’t agreed upon. Which ones do they think reasonable people could resolve, the second list are the solvable ones, and the third list contains the major tension issues. And the lists will have some of the same issues in each category.

One, people are getting comfortable talking to each other. Two, Western civilization will not end if the two sides agree to a few issues. After a few days, a psychological momentum builds up – each side starts to respect the other and learns the capacity to talk through problems.

During the next round, you can walk a little faster. After 10 days and nights in his office, the commissioner of the soccer world spoke to the players directly with respect and admiration, and told them that for every issue he was prepared to discuss, he’d answer any questions. If you treat the other side with that level of respect, you’re making enormous points. There is an enormous challenge here in the orchestra world. We’re going to try very hard to get people to work through it.

Q: What impact does the local economy play?
GC: Yes, it’s important but there are certain common denominators: ticket sales are down, donor/charity giving is not at the level it once was. This is extremely unique to orchestras. The obligation to make you aware of what is happening and give you the option to give recommendations for how to overcome problems is a critical component.

Q: Jesse said that board terms are not good. What do you think about orchestra committee chairs changing every year? By the time I develops a relationship with a chair, there are new people elected.

GC: It’s important to have seasoned people, new blood, and the most militant musician involved in negotiations, because slowly and surely, the latter would realize the difficulty of the process. It’s so easy to second guess what the committee does, so get them involved.

About the author

Ann Drinan
Ann Drinan

Ann Drinan, Senior Editor, has been a member of the Hartford Symphony viola section for over 30 years. She is a former Chair of the Orchestra Committee, former member of the HSO Board, and has served on many HSO committees. She is also the Executive Director of CONCORA (CT Choral Artists), a professional chorus based in Hartford and New Britain, founded by Artistic Director Richard Coffey. Ann was a member of the Advisory Board of the Symphony Orchestra Institute (SOI), and was the HSO ROPA delegate for 14 years, serving as both Vice President and President of ROPA. In addition to playing the viola and running CONCORA, Ann is a professional writer and editor, and has worked as a consultant and technical writer for software companies in a wide variety of industries for over 3 decades. (She worked for the Yale Computer Science Department in the late 70s, and thus has been on the Internet, then called the DARPAnet, since 1977!) She is married to Algis Kaupas, a sound recordist, and lives a block from Long Island Sound in Branford CT. Together they create websites for musicians: shortbeachwebdesign.com.

Ann holds a BA in Music from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and an MA in International Relations from Yale University.

Read Ann Drinan's blog here. web.esm.rochester.edu/poly/author/ann-drinan

Leave a Reply