Justice for extras

Drew McManus analyzed the effect of the new collective bargaining agreement in Philly on the relative compensation of the Philadelphia Orchestra musicians in a post at Adaptistration. His conclusions were not positive:

  • Philadelphia Orchestra’s recent agreement places it firmly below traditional peers, including the Cleveland Orchestra.
  • For the first time in the history of the organizations included in this examination, the Philadelphia Orchestra will be surpassed by the National Symphony and the Minnesota Orchestra.
  • The Detroit Symphony Orchestra wages fell to such a level that it can no longer be considered competitive with this peer group.
  • If the National Symphony continues its recent trend, it may supplant Boston and become the newest member to break into the  Big 5 since Los Angeles and San Francisco.
  • The Pittsburgh Symphony came close to surpassing Philadelphia but their agreement from earlier in the season contained enough concessions that they are now on the bottom of this peer group.

I suspect the biggest recruitment/retention problem with the new Philly contract is not the contract per se but the parlous economic state of the orchestra and its possible effect on the management’s willingness to do the kinds of things that Big Five orchestras has always done.

Musicians care about money, of course – but they also care about being in a financially stable and artistically successful and prestigious orchestra. It’s hard to look at the current state of the Philadelphia Orchestra and feel optimistic about its future as an internationally-renowned orchestra, although one should always remember the old saying that “it’s hard to make predictions – especially about the future.”

But the most interesting thing about Drew’s post, to me, was a comment by long-time 802 and RMA stalward Michael Comins, who wrote:

Putting aside the $131,000 PO musicians were supposed to receive but didn’t in the last year of their expired contract, subs and emeritus musicians who play a whole year will now only receive $87,500 compared to the approx. $125,000 they did get – a whopping 30% cut. Then there’s the pension boondoggle on top of this. Did you say  competitive?

Orchestra musicians are, in general, pretty good trade unionists. But we seem to have a huge collective blind spot when it comes to paying substitutes and extras. Philly is not the only orchestra to have made far greater cuts in sub/extra pay than in pay for full-time musicians during concessionary bargaining; it’s awfully hard for a committee to threaten to strike, or reach impasse, and then have to convince the entire orchestra on the importance of holding out on the issue of extra/sub pay (although mine did in 1994; we took a 15% cut and held out against management’s proposal to cut sub/extra per-service pay until they dropped it at literally the last minute).

What I find truly shocking are the orchestras that cut sub/extra pay as a means to boost the pay of the regular musicians. After doing the right thing in 1994, my orchestra did just that: we turned around in 1996 and cut sub/extra per-service pay by 10% in a deal to boost the base pay in the final year to $50,000, causing me to vote against a contract ratification for the first (and likely last) time in my career.

A far more egregious example was the LA Phil negotiation in 2005. It was a very rich settlement: base pay went from $105,300 in 2004/2005 to $129, 585 in 2008/09. Good for them; they had a new hall, one of the two or three best CEOs in the business, and the hottest prospect since Leonard Bernstein as their incoming music director.

So how did they pay for it? In part, sadly, by screwing the subs and extras. Under “Miscellaneous,” at the very end of the ICSOM settlement bulletin, was this travesty:

Sub and extra scale frozen at 2004-05 rate until it becomes 82.5% of scale

Why is this wrong? To begin with, a cheaper rate for subs and extras inevitably encourages management to use them to fill vacancies, rather than hire permanent full-time musicians (and, in fact, the LA Phil settlement also reduced the mandatory size of the orchestra by 2 string players through attrition). Obviously there are a lot of very good musicians who work for our orchestras as subs and extras. But one of the major arguments for the kind of job security that musicians have won over the years is that a permanent group of musicians learns to play together in a way that can’t be duplicated by simply hiring the best available freelancers and scheduling four rehearsals. If we really believe this argument (and I do), why do we undercut it by negotiating rates for subs and extras that make it far easier for a cash-strapped management (and most managements are strapped for cash, at least when budgeting time comes around) to fill vacancies with cheaper labor?

Then, of course, there’s the solidarity argument. There are lots of good unemployed and underemployed musicians out there. If the Apocalypse came (and it might start very soon in Louisville) and real honest-to-goodness union-busting was tried in our field, wouldn’t you rather have those your subs and extras not pissed off at you for having negotiated a pay rate for them (without their consent, needless to say) far less than what you negotiated for yourself? Just who do you think are going to be the people that management will try first to hire to replace you? They’re in town (no travel or hotel bills) and management already knows how to get hold of them. And management knows they’re pissed off at you.

Given the cost of health insurance and other benefits these days, rest assured that the 82.5% of scale negotiated by the LA Phil musicians for their underemployed colleagues is, when all is said and done, more likely 60% or so of the total per-service compensation of a full-time LA Phil member. I’d be mad if that’d been done to me, and so would you be.

Which raises another point. Orchestra musicians in the AFM have become accustomed to complete control of their labor negotiations. But musicians who work as extras and subs alongside us have rights under Federal labor law as well. One of those is the right to organize. There is not much stopping those musicians from asking their Local to form a bargaining unit strictly for subs and extras – or, if the Local refused, from doing it themselves. It’s not hard if management wants to play ball, and it’s possible even if they don’t. And, if you think negotiations are tricky now, try doing it in tandem with another bargaining unit (and potentially even another union) in the same workplace – a bargaining unit comprised, moreover, entirely of people who think you’ve screwed them for years.

But the best arguments against this kind of “a living wage for me but not for thee” thinking were made many years ago by someone who has become one of the pillars of ICSOM: Atlanta Symphony tubist and long-time ICSOM delegate Michael Moore, in a 1988 article in Senza Sordino titled, very simply, “Justice for Extras.” It was not a long article, so I will take the liberty of simply quoting it in full.

In the symphonic world, there is a group of our colleagues that has not received the attention it deserves. Extra musicians (substitutes and non-contracted players) are indispensable to the operation of our orchestras.

Two surveys, one by the Atlanta Symphony ICSOM delegate and the other by AFM Local 2-197 (St. Louis), were conducted in the past year to determine the treatment of extra musicians in ICSOM orchestras. While the majority of our orchestras appear to treat extra players fairly, there is still room for improvement.

Most managements are not willing to take on the financial burden of maintaining a Vienna- or Berlin-sized orchestra. Extras are an efficient way of adding players to the orchestra (or replacing players temporarily) only when needed.

During the time these musicians play on stage with us, they are part of our orchestra. They are under the direct control of the same conductor, personnel manager, and other supervisory personnel as we are. They take the same breaks and drink the same coffee we do. They often have very prominent parts to play under extreme pressure. They are heard by the same paying audience and reviewed by the same critics as we are.

Yet, a double standard exists. With very few exceptions, extras do not receive any life, health, instrument, or disability insurance. They get no pension, not even the AFM-EPW. They get no vacation pay, personal leave days, or sick days. In some orchestras, they make only a token salary. Doesn’t the situation of these musicians seem like our own, say, 30 years ago? Did we like working under those conditions?

A strong local or sympathetic orchestra negotiating committee might help the extra players achieve some progress in salary and benefits. But if the local does not want to make waves, or if the negotiating committee views money spent by the management on extras as coming from the orchestra’s pocket, then extras are lucky to get miscellaneous local scale. With no job security, it is difficult for the extras themselves to influence their situtation, for they risk never playing with the orchestra again, branded “ungrateful troublemakers.”

And what about job security? Although most extras play with our orchestras on only an occasional basis, what happens if an extra has a bad day (or week)? What happens if an extra is ill or previously engaged and cannot play? What happens to an established extra when a new “hot player” moves to town? An extra who has bent over backward to play in the orchestra, even filling in at the last minute, could lose the chance to play with the orchestra in the future. “Oh, well, that’s the free market,” we say. Right. It’s the same “free market” that existed in the old days for everyone. Many of these extras will eventually get permanent jobs in our orchestras. They deserve just treatment by their colleagues who are fortunate enough to have attained permanent jobs already.

The minimum compensation that an orchestra should provide for extra players would be the base orchestral salary per service, with electronic media payments paid separately. Extras engaged for an extended time should receive pro-rata vacation pay. And all extras should receive a percentage payable to the AFM-EPW or other pension. Providing other benefits in most situations may be impractical, but at least the concept of equal pay for equal work should be established.

We in ICSOM are quick to seek parity with other orchestras and pursue justice in our labor-management relations. Let’s apply some of that parity and justice to our valuable extra players.

Michael Moore
Atlanta Symphony ICSOM Delegate

My only disagreement with Michael would be that I don’t think that “the majority of orchestras” treated extras fairly, then or now. Some day it’s going to come back and bite us. And we’ll deserve it.

(This post corrected for grammatical errors and various other doofus moments at 12:30 PM EST on October 21. I’ve really got to find a better way (or perhaps better time) to proof these.)

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 comment

Leave a Reply