Norman doesn’t get negotiations

It’s not surprising that Norman Lebrecht was right on top of the Chicago Symphony strike. It’s also not surprising that much of what he wrote missed the point or was simply wrong:

Chicago is where the present inflationary cycle started when Henry Fogel, the former manager, caved in to a union demand for a $104,000 starting wage for a 20-hour week. It kicked in eight years ago and obliged other top orchestras to  break the six-figure barrier in order to stay competitive. Even if they didn’t, Fogel – who left Chicago with a deepening deficit – undermined other orchs that were trying to maintain balance in their wage bill.

And if Henry Fogel hadn’t agreed to a base wage of over $100,000, no one else ever would have? Henry is no doubt pleased  – not to mention surprised – to learn that he had that much power over his peers in other orchestras. I doubt he thought so at the time, and he would have been right to doubt it. It was not his responsibility, as CEO, to make the economics of orchestras other than the CSO work. That would have been the responsibility of the boards and managements of those other orchestras. They didn’t do anything they didn’t think was right for their organization. If they did, they should have left the board or been fired.

‘The Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association is extremely disappointed that the musicians have decided to strike. Looking around the country, it’s clear that the more prudent path would be to work with us to ensure their future, rather than engage in this action,’ said CSO president Deborah Rutter.

True, up to a point. But you have to ask why the organisation allowed talks to drag on as the season-opening deadline drew so near. Nobody negotiates well with a gun at their heads and musicians under pressure act no differenly from any other human species.

The problem here is not the intransigence of musicians. It is the language of orchestral management in the US that has to change before there can be peace, a commonality of interest and the prospect of renewal. Ms Rutter needs to talk soft and put away that big stick.

First of all, Rutter’s statement is, if anything, quite understated for its type. Did Norman expect her to congratulate the musicians on striking? I doubt he would expect the musicians to congratulate management on hanging tough, unless he has a different definition of “commonality of interest” than is the normal one.

Secondly, labor negotiations have deadlines by their very nature. When two parties to a labor negotiation are both determined, as appears to be the case here, negotiations usually go right up to the deadline (which is generally, in such a situation, not an arbitrary date but one which both sides view as highly desirable to settle by), and there is never a guarantee that there will be a meeting of the minds when time is up. That is neither side’s fault; it’s simply the nature of tough negotiations, especially ones that focus (as this one looks to do) on economics, which, in the orchestral setting, are usually zero-sum games.

The questions that Norman doesn’t raise are the really interesting ones. What’s the distance between the parties’ positions? What do the musicians expect to gain by striking, and who do they hope to influence? Why is Deborah Rutter in the first strike of her career as an orchestra manager?

Oh – and orchestra musicians work a “20-hour week” in the same sense that NFL players work 16 weeks a year.

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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