Colorado and the AFM

The invaluable Norman Lebrecht once again breaks a story:

Musicians in the Colorado Symphony Orchestra have filed to decertify from their union, the American Federation of Musicians., from representing them in contract negotiations.

The causes of dissension are obscure and both sides are staying tight-lipped, but a petition has been filed here and a vote is expected soon.

The move is part of a growing disaffection in classical orchestras with the AFM under the flamboyant leadership of Ray Hair. Last year, the Charleston Symphony Musicians left the AFM and we hear of further troubles brewing in Montreal and Los Angeles.

As sometimes happens with Norman’s breaking stories, however, his analysis is flawed. Montreal and Charleston have nothing to do with Ray Hair, and I doubt very much that Colorado does either.

Historically, orchestras have left the AFM when one of two reasons –  dissatisfaction with national media agreements or dissatisfaction with their local –  meets the catalyst of an energetic internal activist with an agenda. Seattle’s departure in 1988 is a perfect example, as has been extensively documented. Discontent with what was then known as “Phono Labor,” the agreement under which all recordings were made in the AFM, gave an opening to a few within the Seattle Symphony who believed that symphonic musicians needed their own union. Those few – with the inadvertent assistance of some local and national AFM officers – brilliantly exploited that discontent and formed their own union. The AFM learned quickly from that debacle and reformed itself to the extent that virtually no other orchestras followed Seattle into that new union.

Charleston was a different story, but the dynamics were the same, as I wrote about here. Montreal has been a mess for a long time, as those who follow the AFM know. There has been tension between the Montreal local and the AFM’s Canadian office for years, mirroring in part the centuries-old tension between Anglophone and Francophone Canadians. But there have been more recent difficulties as well; the Montreal Symphony strike in 2005 left financial wounds on the Local that have not only lingered but have been the source of action and reaction at several AFM conventions.

So what’s the problem in Colorado? Reading between the lines of one knowledgeable comment on Norman’s post, it appears that this one is about media as well. I’m not sure why that should be; the AFM’s new Integrated Media Agreement, which covers symphonic electronic media, looks to be a decent agreement with considerable local flexibility – which can easily be spiced up by the addition of large doses of EMG, of  course. It’s possible that Local officers or 1501 Broadway have been overly heavy-handed when dealing with the Colorado Symphony musicians over this issue, as was the case in Seattle, but that wouldn’t be the root cause.

One thing this is almost certainly not about, however, is “growing disaffection in classical orchestras with the AFM under the flamboyant leadership of Ray Hair.” There are those who like Ray’s “flamboyance” and those who don’t. But orchestra musicians have more sense than to do something as important as decertify their union over the AFM President’s style. Ray Hair, unlike his predecessor, has been very careful to keep the AFM’s Player Conferences on board. If orchestras were going to leave the AFM because of stuff that 1501 Broadway did, they would have left in droves in the Noughties. They didn’t.

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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