The top tier of American Orchestras appears to be awash with labor problems, with a new orchestra announcing a lockout or strike almost every year around this point in the calendar. The Minnesota Orchestra in 2012-2013, The St. Paul Chamber Symphony, the Atlanta Symphony and the Chicago Symphony in 2012, and The San Francisco Symphony in 2013 all suffered greatly when contract renewal talks broke down. Now, after the Metropolitan Opera only narrowly avoided a strike, the Atlanta Symphony is in the midst of a lockout. There is no truly objective way to approach the question of why labor contract problems have become perennial. My perspective comes specifically from my experience as a professional player and conductor and I admit that my perspective is as biased as any other. But, professional orchestras have always faced economic hardships. Why, then, have contract renewals only recently become so impossible? Perhaps because there seems to have been a change in the terms of the conversation about the costs of operating an orchestra.
The biggest shift in thinking about musician contracts seems to be the way that public opinion has become reflexively anti-union. Leaving aside the complicated reasons for that particular political reality, generally anti-union sentiment seems to have given orchestra management teams a sturdy platform from which to frame musician compensation as the primary financial problem faced by an orchestra. Whether or not player contracts are financially problematic for any particular orchestra, it does seem that they are the first target for attempts to reduce orchestra budgets and negotiating new contracts has become almost uniformly acrimonious.
To be clear, orchestral musicians work exceptionally hard and are generally team-spirited to a fault. Yes, players in major orchestras are well-paid and principal players are very well-paid. But, those players are the best in their field. They are world-class artists who have spent years of their lives (and often gone into crushing debt) in an attempt to reach the pinnacle of their art. Their pay rate may seem high, but it is meant to at least partially compensate for the hours a day that players spend practicing outside of each rehearsal and the cost of instruments that can sometimes run into the millions of dollars. The performers at a major orchestra should no more be expected to, by default, continually accept pay cuts than should the doctors at a major hospital. This is not to say that musicians’ unions haven’t made concessions for the greater good or that they shouldn’t ever do so. But, it is important to look past the assumptions made based on current anti-union sentiment to the deeper issues at work.
Jaemi Blair Loeb, D.M.A