Who represents whom – and when?

Drew McManus rather raised the profile of the current controversy in Colorado with his post last Friday:

Since the Denver Post published an opinion piece written by former Colorado Symphony Orchestra (CSO) board members Heather K. Miller and Bruce Clinton, the field has been abuzz with backchannel discussion over the tone of the letter (in particular, how the authors characterized CSO musicians). What’s got folks talking is the fact that Clinton currently serves as a board officer at the League of American Orchestra.

What seems to be fueling most conversation is whether the rancor and tone of Clinton’s letter represent official League views.

From a short and simple point of view; no, it doesn’t.

Correct. Unless he identified himself, implicitly (by stating he was also a League officer) or explicitly (by stating he was representing the League’s view), it doesn’t.

…Although it’s an easy error to make, it’s one every board member should be diligent about avoiding; likewise, musician representatives need to regularly pepper statements with disclosures as to whether their comments are those of an individual musician on behalf of the collective as an elected representative.

I’m inclined to disagree, but only on technical grounds. I think that simply not identifying oneself as a representative of the collective or board is sufficient – especially when (as in the Colorado situation) most readers would have no reason to suspect that the writer had any other associations to disclose. Probably not more than 1 in 5,000 readers of the Miller/Clinton piece even knew what the League was, much less that Clinton was its treasurer.

…The trouble begins with the realization that someone who has clearly spent a great deal of time, energy, and treasure on behalf of advocating for orchestras so as to rise to a position of considerable influence and responsibility within the field’s largest service organization is capable of purporting such inaccurate, misleading, and vindictive positions.

… when the League’s executive board officer walks this path and the League has nothing publicly to say about it, some folks begin to feel a little nervous. In short, the lack of any public statement, even something along the lines of an obligatory the views of Mr. Clinton do not represent…, only sows the seeds of anxiety…

Granted, the League has had a long standing policy of not commenting on labor disputes but in this case, Mr. Clinton removed himself from the CSO board and is therefore no longer involved with the institution. As such, the matter at hand that has people on edge is Clinton’s sentiments and his position inside the institution as an influential member of closed door policy decisions…

Consequently, the question at hand is what comes next. Will Clinton remain on the League board? Will the League release a statement addressing Clinton’s letter?

This, I think, gets to the core issue for those who have raised this concern. Musicians understandably aren’t happy that anyone holds such views; the fact someone who holds such views is on the League board, and theoretically at least in a position to advance them, can be viewed as a rational cause for anxiety.

But the issue raises more interesting and important questions than what the League should do. I think the answer to that question, at least, is simple: if the League is to maintain what Drew describes as “a long standing policy of not commenting on labor disputes,” then comment on this issue is inappropriate. It is true that Clinton left the CSO board (although I’m not sure that matters), but there’s no question that the Miller/Clinton letter was both about a labor dispute and was a response to a news article highly critical of a group of trustees that included Miller and Clinton. “No comment about labor disputes,” if it is not a blanket policy, is not a policy at all. And it’s absolutely the right policy for the League to have, for a whole host of reasons.

One reason at least ought to be familiar to anyone who’s sat on an orchestra committee; the need for consensus to be both real and perceived. It’s hard enough to reach agreement on issues that a group like an orchestra committee or a non-profit board have no choice but to decide. I don’t know many orchestra committees that go out of their way to take positions on things they don’t need to, especially if they know that agreement will be hard to reach on such positions. And I suspect the range of opinion on the League board about the generic versions of the issues raised in the Miller/Clinton letter would be very diverse indeed. (The fact that I even need to use the word “suspect” rather than “know” ought to be some reassurance to those who seem convinced that the League spends time developing or implementing policies on collective bargaining.)

Orchestra musicians are used to selecting people for governance positions largely on the basis of their views on issues of concern to the orchestra, whether it be for positions on the orchestra committee, the local union’s executive committee, or (through their elected representatives) for positions on the ICSOM Governing Board and the AFM’s International Executive Board. But that’s not how the non-profit boards I know work; they generally look for people that can add value to the board in specific ways, whether by personal wealth, knowledge about certain areas of board work (ie, marketing or finance), their connections with foundations and other source of donated income, various kinds of diversity, and other qualities that the board might need. Without getting into any specifics of the League’s governance committee work, the people that have joined the League board in recent years all meet those criteria in various ways. The only view that I can say with confidence is widely shared amongst League board members is that orchestras are important to American society and should be supported.

The anxiety underlying this whole controversy, and the questions it raises, are really about the role of what can only be called ideology in governance. Musicians take ideology very seriously when electing representatives. Non-profits board don’t, and can’t – at least not if they’re serious about doing real work.

Obviously there are views that might be disqualifying for membership on most non-profit boards, especially if publicly expressed. In our field, stating publicly that women ought not to conduct orchestras, or that the field would be healthier if only it weren’t run by (pick whatever ethnic/racial/gender classification you belong to), or that their local orchestra should hold a benefit for the Jerry Sandusky legal defense fund, would be widely viewed as rendering the proponent persona non grata in polite society in general, much less fit for service on a non-profit board with a diverse constituency.

Do the views expressed in the Miller/Clinton letter fall to that level? While I agree with the criticisms that those views were wrong and that the letter was, at a minimum, an unfair presentation of the content of the Colorado CBA, I can certainly imagine that much of what is stated in public by musicians in most local labor disputes would be viewed by boards and managements as equally wrong and unfair. I’m sure that much of what I’ve written over the years about various disputes was viewed that way by the targets of my ire. That’s the nature of presenting the view of one party to a dispute. Polemics are not neutral analysis. But the fact that polemics may not be “fair” does not render them illegitimate points of view, or those who write them or share those points of view unfit for board service.

Given that there are lots of people who serve on orchestra boards who would probably agree with Miller and Clinton when it came to their own orchestra, that’s a good thing. How many loyal and generous board members would need to be thrown off the League board, or the boards of our orchestras, if we required board members to believe and publicly argue that our contracts were perfect except in the ways we don’t think they are? And do we really believe that our boards would be more effective if we were able to do that?

Should musicians feel threatened that the views in the Miller/Clinton letter are held by a League board member who is also an officer? I don’t remember anyone feeling particularly assured about the League’s benign intentions when Bob Wagner, long-time ICSOM delegate and New Jersey Symphony orchestra committee chair, was the League’s secretary; this street seems to be permanently one-way, which itself is rather telling.

But, that aside, the answer is “no.” The work of the League board is done mostly by its committees. It matters what those committees think about the issues that come before them. It particularly matters what the chairs of those committees think about those issues. The League does have some committees that peripherally intersect the world of collective bargaining, but the Finance Committee is not one of them.

But what about the real work of the League? Drew writes that:

And we’re not talking about general board work; folks who know better know that real policy and implementation doesn’t happen in board rooms, it takes place during face to face meetings, telephone calls, and email exchanges. In this sense, it isn’t the decisions so much as the implementation; much the same way laws filter out into bureaucratic process.

So look at the implementation. Is the League’s training for orchestra staffers infused with an anti-musician bias? If that was the intention, picking Brent Assink and Deborah Rutter to run the program seems like an odd way to implement such a bias. Do the League’s lobbying efforts run counter to what the AFM would advocate? Given that the League and the AFM have worked closely together on many issues over the years on Capitol Hill, that seems unlikely as well.

What we’re left with is the completely unverified suspicion that, because the treasurer of the League has expressed views that musicians don’t like, in his capacity as a former CSO board member, the League must therefore be covertly pushing a line that it clearly isn’t pushing in public and that, in fact, is directly counter to League policy as posted on the League’s website. Absent any evidence that the League is behaving covertly in such ways, such suspicions are unworthy of serious consideration.

The real problem for musicians is not that a League board member and officer said what Bruce Clinton said in public. It’s that quite a few of our own orchestras’ board members would, if pushed, almost certainly say very similar same thing about our contracts. Orchestra boards are not hotbeds of pro-union sentiment, and never will be. And, in a public labor dispute, things are going to be said about us and our contracts that we’re not going to like.

There are ways to deal with that. A witch hunt launched against a League board member for daring to suggest in public that the musicians of his orchestra might get too much sick leave should not be one of them.

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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