Justice for extras – some practical considerations

There was an unusual amount of feedback on my post last week about the pay disparity between full-time musicians and subs in Minnesota and how that might have come about. Some of the feedback confirmed my suspicions that the root of the problem was a “new model” mindset on the part of some board members. In particular, one person sent me in search of this article, which contained the following quote from Doug Kelley, vice-chair of the board’s negotiating committee:

…overall, I think we did achieve a contract that could be a model for the rest of the industry. The different pay scale for substitutes, a smaller core and revenue sharing if we hit certain goals are being looked on quite positively I think.

It’s telling that the very first thing he mentioned that “could be a model for the rest of the industry” was paying subs less. In my orchestra, taking 10% out of the sub pay budget would drop our overall expenses by less than 1%. I doubt it’s much different in Minnesota. Reducing sub pay was not an economic necessity for the Minnesota Orchestra. Lumping together reducing pay and “a smaller core,” on the other hand, begins to look like a “new model,” albeit not one in the interests of full-time musicians.

But the discussion did start me thinking harder about what “justice for extras,” in Michael Moore’s timeless phrase , might mean in practice. He identified only one specific practice:

The minimum compensation that an orchestra should provide for extra players would be the base orchestral salary per service, with electronic media payments paid separately. Extras engaged for an extended time should receive pro-rata vacation pay. And all extras should receive a percentage payable to the AFM-EPW or other pension. Providing other benefits in most situations may be impractical, but at least the concept of equal pay for equal work should be established.

In reality, “equal pay for equal work” would require a per-service rate for subs considerably higher than for full-time musicians. What Michael describes as the “base orchestral salary per service” assumes that, if an orchestra works 8 services a week and has a 52-week season, then musicians work 416 services annual. But the actual figure, for most orchestra musicians, would be around 2/3 to 3/4 of that number, making the true rate per service worked much higher. “Providing other benefits” may indeed be impractical, as Michael suggests (although some orchestras do make contributions on behalf of subs to the AFM-EP Fund), but it’s not impractical to pro-rate the cost of such benefits and pay that to subs as well. I suspect that truly paying subs equally for “equal work” would mean a per-service rate about 50% higher than that of the full-time musicians. Needless to say, that would be a difficult pill to swallow for many full-time musicians. But, of course, working for less than the nominal per-service rate for full-time musicians has been an equally bitter pill for subs.

Then there’s the issue of job security. In most situations, subs have none at all. If they piss off the personnel manager, or the principal of their section, or the conductor, they may never get asked back. In practice, of course, many subs have worked with the same orchestra for a long time. But that doesn’t make any fairer the disparity between the job security full-time musicians enjoy and the “at-will employment” conditions subs endure. It’s possible to imagine a first-call list for subs being negotiated into a CBA for a full-time orchestra, but it’s not hard to imagine that both management and many full-time musicians might resist doing so.

The most common justification amongst full-time musicians for disparate treatment of subs is one of quality. To put the argument crudely, subs have not won a national audition for their positions and, as a result, aren’t as valuable artistically. That’s an argument that assumes its conclusion; subs wouldn’t be subs if they’d won the full-time musician they’re subbing for. It does not follow that they are necessarily contribute less on stage, though. It is a fact, uncomfortable thought it might be for some of us, that there no orchestra in the world in which all the full-time musicians are more “valuable” artistically than are all of the subs. Certainly long-time membership in an ensemble means a great deal artistically; it’s one reason why no per-service orchestra is ranked amongst the world’s best. But winning one national audition does not make that musician better than all the musicians who didn’t win that audition, and certainly not better than all the musicians who’ve come along since. Several full-time musicians in my orchestra won auditions for those positions while on our sub list, and a couple more were hired for full-time positions without national auditions (with, of course, the agreement of the orchestra in the form of a contract waiver).

The most difficult issue, in terms of fairness to subs, is that of self-determination. Full-time musicians long ago wrestled the right to negotiate and ratify their collective agreements from their Locals. In doing so, we also inherited the moral obligations that go along with that right, even if the legal obligations remain with the Local. That includes the duty of fair representation.

We believe in self-determination for ourselves; we elect our negotiating committees, determine who to hire to help us negotiate, and eventually vote whether or not to accept the contract they negotiate with our employers. But where are subs in this picture? We negotiate for them. They are members of the same bargaining unit as us legally, but, in most orchestras, they have no say at all in their terms and conditions of employment.

The standard rejoinder is that they are supposed to be represented by the Local. But, under AFM bylaws, locals very little say in the outcome of the negotiating process, as the most important step – ratification – is a right guaranteed to the orchestra musicians and no one else. The only real club the Local has, and it’s one so heavy-handed that I’ve never heard of it being used on a full-time orchestra, is the ability to determine who’s eligible to vote on ratification. Even my over-active imagination quails at the war that would erupt if a Local invoked that power to let subs vote on contract ratification.

In theory, of course, subs might be able to form their own bargaining unit. There’s no obvious reason why they couldn’t use federal labor law to do so. What the AFM might have to say about that is another question. What the management of the orchestra in question might think is yet another question. Perhaps one reason it’s never been tried is that the answers to those two questions are pretty obvious. Without any kind of job security, or support from their union, what musician is going to be crazy enough to try to organize their fellow subs?

Subs have a real stake in the outcome of negotiations, even if it’s less critical to their long-term futures than it is to that of the full-time musicians. Just how to convert that stake into a meaningful say in the outcome is a very difficult problem. But admitting that there is a principle that’s being violated by their absence from the process would be a good first step towards addressing it.

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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