More on the Colorado flap

Reactions to the opinion piece written by former Colorado Symphony board members Heather Miller and Bruce Clinton have been quick and generally angry. They fall into three lines of thought; the first was best summarized by Drew McManus at Adaptistration, who wrote:

…But the question that should cross your mind at some point while reading this travesty is why Miller and Clinton would bother going to so much trouble. Simply put, they voluntarily left their positions as board members and that is unquestionably their right. They disagreed with how the labor dispute was beginning to unfold so they left; observers can argue the merits of that decision until the cows come home but it’s nothing more than an academic exercise since the outcome has no real impact on the CSO’s actual situation.

So what good can come from a letter like this? Miller, Clinton and the other board members who left no longer make decisions for the institution so their beliefs and perspective on institutional governance are now moot. Those responsibilities have been absorbed by others and going public with a letter like their without any clearly stated and defensible purpose is perhaps most likely to be interpreted as little more than a clumsy act of vanity.

I have a hard time figuring out why I do most of what I do, much less why other people behave as they do. Most people who write for public consumption are at least partly motivated by a desire to be noticed (present company included). But a simpler, and entirely plausible, explanation was contained in the letter, which stated:

It’s astonishing that Post reporter Kyle MacMillan would conclude that board members “just walked away from their responsibilities” (“A plan to save CSO? Only the sounds of silence,” Oct. 2 Scene story) without even interviewing a single trustee who resigned.

In short, the letter was a response by two people who had been publicly criticized by the paper’s reporter. That, to me, seems more than sufficient explanation for Miller and Clinton to have written the letter and for the paper to have run it.

The second objection I’ve read – this one from musicians – is that, because Clinton is also treasurer of the board of the League of American Orchestras, this letter must represent the viewpoint of the League. Had the letter identified him as such, or had indicated League support for what they wrote, I could sympathize with this perception. But neither is true. Lots of people, on both sides of the table, wear multiple hats in this business and have opinions that do not necessarily reflect the point of view of the various organizations they help to run, or for which they provide content for, or by which they are employed. Absent any indication to the contrary, I think it’s best (and fairest) to assume that, when people like Clinton and Miller (or, for that matter, this writer) speak out on issues, they represent themselves and no one else. I’d hate to think that the League, or Local 8, or the Milwaukee Symphony, would have to post a disclaimer every time I wrote something that someone might disagree with.

The final objection is that the letter was either misleading or flat-out untrue. I haven’t the time to parse the Colorado CBA for specific inaccuracies. What was obvious was that Miller and Clinton made no attempt to put their criticisms of specific provisions of the CBA into any kind of context. But negotiations are all about context – or, to put it another way, a CBA is entirely a package of compromises and trade-offs. It’s not fair, for example, to criticize  how much time off musicians might get without noting that management could almost certainly have reduced the amount had they been willing to pay the musicians more.

In the end, an orchestral labor negotiation is between one party that wants a contract they can afford and that gives them enough flexibility to meet the institution’s mission and one party that wants to maximize its economic well-being. Both of those are legitimate goals. Most of the contractual clauses that Miller and Clinton don’t like are cost items of various kinds. But, for management, costs are essentially fungible, which means that how the costs add up is almost irrelevant – what matters is the bottom line. If management gets orchestra salaries to where they want them, not pushing to reduce sick leave is entirely rational. It’s very likely that the current sick leave situation costs management far less than the raises they would have had to offer to get the musicians to agree to significant reductions in sick leave allowances.

Which, of course, may be the fundamental objection that Miller and Clinton (and, to be fair, many other orchestra trustees) have to the current “business model.” There are precious few industries left in 21st-century America where the employees have any real bargaining power. It’s hard to imagine that people from a for-profit sector where union density is in the single digits retain much patience for the collective bargaining process or the notion that employees have that kind of power to tell the employer what it can and cannot do. It is telling that their letter referred to “the union” as being the obstacle to change when it’s been clear to most observers for many years that the AFM and its locals have little real influence over the decisions that rank-and-file orchestra musicians make about their contracts. The people that rejected the arguments made in their letter were the Colorado Symphony musicians, not “the union.”

And, of course, both Miller and Clinton were (at least to the best of my knowledge) on the CSO board of directors which approved the contract that they now criticize the musicians for being unwilling to modify. If the model is so bad now, was it that much better when that board approved this contract?

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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