Charleston decertifies

I was reminded yesterday of a classic newspaper headline that combined obviousness with a complete lack of useful information:

Something went wrong in jet crash, experts say

Something similarly went wrong in the Charleston Symphony, according to Norman Lebrecht:

In an unusual move that may prove a sign of the times, players in the Charleston Symphony Orchestra have voted to leave Local 502 of the American Federation of Musicians. Only 76 of some 175 eligible musicians cast their vote and they decided by a 49-27 split to go it alone.

A comment to Norman’s post from Michael Smith, a member of the orchestra, provided some details on the process, but little help with the underlying reasons:

1. The motivation here was for sure not political. Even though we do live in a right to work, Republican leaning state, our orchestra consists of, like all orchestras I’ve ever played in, people from all sides of the political spectrum, as well as a diverse ethnic, spiritual and religious community.

…As to there being 170 + eligible voters. The Charleston Symphony is comprised of 24 core musicians currently. (Why that number is so low is a story unto itself. ) When we started the process to decertify, we erroneously thought that it was only the core members of the orchestra that would get to vote on this (of which 90% were in favor of decertification), since core members were historically the ones that got to vote on contract ratification, and all other issues pertaining to the future of the group. Well, we were wrong. Extra musicians were also deemed eligible to vote, regardless of whether they were even affiliated with the AFM in any way.

There have been only  handful of decertifications of AFM locals by orchestral bargaining units since the dawn of the modern symphonic age in the 1960s.. The most famous was the Seattle Symphony leaving the AFM in 1988, which was covered extensively in this issue of Senza Sordino. The Tucson Symphony decertified in 1999 and joined IGSOBM (the parent union of the three bargaining units in Seattle that left in 1988) but returned to the AFM after a few years. There might have been some failed attempts over the years that I missed, but it’s fair to say that orchestras almost never vote to leave the AFM.

So what went wrong in Charleston?  One hint was contained in Michael Smith’s comment:

…This IS ALL about an utter lack of proper representation, from the National to Local level. Musicians from all sides of the political spectrum were in favor of decertification, including former leadership of our Local, when they realized the problems where much deeper and systemic than a simple solution could offer.

This strongly suggests that the musicians had no problem with the Local prior to the former Local officers becoming… former Local officers. Something the current Local administration did appears to be at the root of the problem.

That’s pretty much what happened in Seattle and Tucson. There were other issues – Seattle wanted to record outside of the Phono Agreement, which governed all orchestral recording at the time, for one – but clearly the impetus of the decertification movement was the horrific relationship the orchestra had with the Seattle Local. Had the AFM trusteed the Local early enough, it’s very likely Seattle never would have left.

The question that’s bothering me – assuming I’m correct that there was a war between the Local and the Charleston Symphony musicians – is why the AFM was not more proactive. There is another hint in Michael Smith’s comment:

…The AFM contended that an individual that played only 5 services, which equals a maximum of 12.5 hours of work, was eligible to vote on decertification. This is less than 3% of what the core orchestra worked. That right there, is why the number of eligible voters was bloated to 170 + from an orchestra of 24 members.

It’s possible that the source of the conflict between the Local and the CSO musicians was the status of those musicians whose vote the AFM wanted to include in the balloting – the extras. That would not be unusual; there’s tension within most orchestras and Locals about how subs and extras are treated, and it would not be shocking if a Local, or an orchestral bargaining unit, pushed the issue to the breaking point. There have been some really shameful examples in recent years of subs being treated badly by orchestral bargaining units, backed by their Locals (I’m looking at you, LA and Philly), and it’s not hard to imagine such treatment resulting in some members who worked as subs and extras being pissed off enough to want to throw the bums out and find Local leadership who would see it as their duty to represent the extras more aggressively than orchestra committees usually do.

If the issue at the root of the conflict between the Local and the CSO musicians was related to extras, I can imagine the AFM being conflicted about trusteeing the Local or putting the orchestra into the Orchestra Services Program (a form of mini-trusteeship). If it was something else, then I really don’t understand why the AFM didn’t act sooner to head this off. Decertifications are hideously embarrassing to a union; I find it hard to imagine what considerations might have caused the AFM not to do whatever it took to prevent this one.

I should be clear that the above is simply speculation; I had not an inkling that there were any trouble in Charleston prior to yesterday, much less information on the source of the problem. But the list of possible sources of conflict between an orchestra and a Local is pretty short, and treatment of extras is one where the interests and obligations of a Local can legitimately diverge from those of an orchestral bargaining unit it represents. Most Locals managed to keep that conflict under control. Maybe this one didn’t.

Also not mentioned in the coverage of the decertification was whether the CSO musicians intended to join another union or form their own. There has never been a case of a unionized orchestra going non-union without first folding; Seattle started their own union and Tucson, when they decertified the AFM, joined it. If the Charleston musicians don’t understand the downside for orchestra musicians of not being unionized, I suspect they’ll find out soon enough.

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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