A Disgusting New Low

This post originally appeared on the blog Mask of the Flower Prince.  It is reprinted here with permission.

You know, over the course of the Minnesota Orchestra and Metropolitan Opera labor disputes, I’ve seen a lot of ugly things. Managements in both the disputes resorted to hard-ball tactics and inflammatory rhetoric as part of a deliberate ploy to demonize the musicians and other workers. Again and again, these arts “leaders” denigrated the very art forms that their respective organizations were built to celebrate.  Sadly, such things are often par for the course in a labor dispute, especially when the stakes are high.

But nothing could prepare me for the low blow the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra inflicted today.  They went after their youngest supporters.

At issue are the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra (ASYO) auditions, which would take place shortly. In an email sent to the youth and their parents, the ASO elected to cancel the auditions.  And, they chose to include a gratuitous dig at the musicians’ union, blaming them for the entire mess.  The email reads:

“Dear Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra Candidates and Families:

We were very hopeful that auditions for the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra would occur during negotiations, as they did during the last labor dispute in 2012. However, the Atlanta Federation of Musicians has issued a mandate to all musicians in the local union, prohibiting them from supporting the upcoming auditions. This is an unexpected and unfortunate turn of events.

In light of this development, we find ourselves in the regrettable position of having to postpone the Atlanta Symphony Youth Orchestra auditions until the current labor dispute has been resolved. We will begin processing refunds of your application fees immediately. Please watch your email inbox for updates on your refund in the next two to four days.

Thank you for your patience in this matter. For more information regarding the ongoing contract negotiations, please visit: http://www.atlantasymphony.org/2014musiciantalks

ASO Musician Contract Negotiations | Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

Facts and updates on Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s 2014 ongoing negotiations with the ASO Player’s Association.”

So to recap, the ASO is telling music students that their orchestra was taken away by the mean, nasty people at the mean, nasty union, who are not letting the auditions happen because… they are mean and nasty. And to find out more on the situation, the disappointed youth are invited to look at the ASO’s self-serving talking points about the dispute (which as many have pointed out, don’t seem to be addressing the issues the public is concerned about).

And the ASO did so in an email that neither the musicians and Atlanta Federation of Musicians could respond to.

Really? Really? It is hard for me to express how repugnant I find this. Let me point out three things about this email:

1. This interpretation of events is patently false. Let us be clear… it was the ASO management that went nuclear. It’s not as if the unions are just looking for trouble; all this is happening because the ASO management has unilaterally chosen to lock out the players, denying them their pay, benefits, and access to the building.  I also take issue with the ASO’s “hope” that the auditions could take place during “the negotiations.”  It was the ASO leadership that ended the negotiations, making this quite an empty hope indeed.

Everything that is happening is the direct result from the ASO management’s actions, and their deliberately-chosen strategy. While obviously unfortunate, this turn of events is anything but “unexpected.”

If the ASO is unhappy with how things are going, they have no one but themselves to blame.

And let me point out that the ASO management also has the unilateral power to end the lockout and get the auditions going again. Right now. As a bewildering array of people have said, this situation could end tomorrow if the ASO management agreed to the kind of play and talk strategy that is used all the time in labor disputes across the country. So why doesn’t it do so, rather than blame “the union” for the results of its actions?

One final point here.  The email specifically states that the “Atlanta Federation of Musicians has issued a mandate to all musicians in the local union, prohibiting them from supporting the upcoming auditions.” (emphasis added)  They say there was no such mandate.  Does the ASO have proof otherwise?

So… as I see it, the ASO’s entire summation of the situation is completely and irredeemably false.

2. This is needlessly inflammatory. There are many, many ways such a letter could be crafted. The obvious choice would be to go with neutral language that didn’t actively blame anyone, but simply notes that the auditions won’t be held until the dispute is resolved. Short, sweet, succinct.

So why the heavy-handed attempt to get the children to blame the union? How on earth will that make anything better? All that will do is infuriate people—not just the musicians who are the ASO’s product, but the community as a whole. Even if 100% of the resulting rage was directed back at the musicians, what is the benefit? What good does it do to have the vast sea of potential funders, donors, ticket-buyers, employees, advocates, and civic boosters think the musicians are greedy, unfeeling pigs?

This dispute is going to end one day, and the ASO will need these people’s support to get the organization back on its feet. It will be much harder to do so within a culture of mutual, seething contempt.  Which brings up my related, final point:

3. This ham-handed approach is self-defeating in the long run. I’d like to ask the ASO management to think hard about this: What happens in your best case scenario, where outraged parents and disappointed youth turn on the musicians? How will you get these young musicians and their parents back into the fold?

And in the broader picture, if you manage to get the general population to think that the musicians are heartless, greedy bastards willing to crush the dreams of bright-faced youngsters… how specifically do you plan to turn around and convince the public to support the orchestra again?

This is an enormous problem. This approach may gain the ASO management a degree of short-term advantage, but it will vastly complicate the management’s job moving forward over the long-term.

But… I don’t know that this will give the ASO a short-term advantage. By and large the youngsters auditioning for the ASYO are close to the musicians already. They are the musicians’ students. They’ve watched the musicians on stage. They admire them. And now, some faceless stranger launches a vicious smear against their teachers, mentors and friends?

I sure know how I’d react. And there would be Hell to pay.

And I’m clearly not alone.  Faced with a similar situation here in Minnesota, a new group emerged: the Young Musicians of Minnesota under the intrepid leadership of Emily Green.  With a little help and a lot of gumption, Emily created a new group to show solidarity with the locked out musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra, and has turned it into one of the most remarkable ensembles in the state.  (My personal favorite action the group took was to play an impromptu concert outside of the headquarters of US Bank—the offices of lead negotiator Richard Davis.)

* * *

As I’ve said before, I’ve been stunned at the ASO management’s actions of late—they smack of amateurish incompetence. But this goes beyond the normal give and take of a labor dispute… even a heated labor dispute.

The ASO management is going after the children. As a labor negotiation tactic.

“Despicable” to too polite a word.


[Addendum:  Based on information that came to light via Mark Gresham in the comments below, I’ve learned that the press release sent out to the public differed from the email sent to the parents in a small but hugely significant way.  For more on the story, click here.]

About the author

Scott Chamberlain

Scott has been involved in arts organizations from a variety of angles, including as a classical vocalist, arts administrator and as a board member. He has worked with such groups as the Minnesota Orchestra, One Voice Mixed Chorus and The O'Shuaghnessy, in such areas as marketing, public relations, and development. He current sings with the Minnesota Chorale, and is a member of the Chorale's Board of Directors.

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