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.