Just in: Players in US orch vote to quit their union

Just in: Players in US orch vote to quit their union


norman lebrecht

October 29, 2013

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.

Trumpeter Michael Smith, who chairs the symphony’s Negotiating Committee, said: ‘For the health of our organization, it’s really important that the musicians have a collaborative working relationship with the board and management.’

The implications of the cessation could be considerable for orchs across the country where a tough economy may require unusual local concessions on both sides.



  • Whether this was the right thing for them to do, only time will tell. But if Local 502 was somehow preventing the musicians from collaborating effectively with the generous volunteer donors who pay most of the bills (and that’s what most American orchestra boards are comprised of), then good riddance. It’s good for musicians to speak with one voice, but not if that voice is still channeling the bitterness of the workers in the Broadway pit orchestras of yesteryear. Time to move on, and participate fully in the process of bringing new audiences to classical music.

    • stronginva says:

      Very astute comment

    • robcat2075 says:

      Is there any substance behind that “if” and “somehow” you are floating out there? One could speculate with “if” all day.

    • voice4 says:

      This article leaves out many important details of what happened in Charleston, such as the fact that this all started when the musicians were locked out by management in 2010.

      • MWnyc says:

        I dunno, @voice4 …

        What you describe as a lock-out, I think most people understood as a suspension of operations because the orchestra’s management actually didn’t have enough money to pay the bills. (The same thing had happened in 2008.)

        Certainly the situation wasn’t comparable to, say, the Minnesota Orchestra management’s lock-out of its musicians.

        At the end of 2010, the Charleston Symphony’s endowments (if I read the Form 990 correctly) totaled about $1.54 million dollars. The Minnesota Orchestra’s endowment is currently worth (last I heard) roughly 100 times that amount.

        Yes, we know that orchestras can’t use endowment principal to finance operations. I cite those number to show that the financial situation underlying the Minnesota Orchestra’s actual lock-out of its musicians is very different from that underlying the Charleston Symphony’s 2010 suspension of operations – meaning that, for the latter, “lock-out” probably isn’t the best word.

    • michael says:

      “Bitter Broadway Musicians” is a straw-man/non-sequitur fallacy.

      How are the Charleston musicians going to collaborate when they “gave up their set at the ‘adult’ table?” Now they truly are at the mercy of the “generous volunteer donors.” The anti-labor (musicians) culture of South Carolina precludes an unfortunate outcome for the musicians.

  • Not knowing the specific details here its difficult to judge, however . . . “76 of some 175 participated by casting a vote” . . . confirms that unions are crumbling from within due to a lack of participation. Older workers that have enjoyed the benefits for years have become complacent and unwilling to stand together for the benefit of those coming behind them. Shame on them.

  • bratschegirl says:

    I’ve been a member of AFM locals where there was a non-functional relationship between the union leadership and the area’s orchestra. Our solution to that situation was to band together to vote out the union officers who had told us that they would sign whatever contract with management they wished and to heck with what we wanted, and replace them with those who were willing to hear and represent our concerns, rather than separating from the AFM altogether. Granted, this was in a much less anti-union environment than contemporary South Carolina. It’s just a shame that any improvement that may now come in the relationship between the Charleston Symphony management and musicians is going to be seen as evidence that unions themselves are the problem, rather than the actions of particular individuals.

    • voice4 says:

      This would have been a much better solution, in my opinion. They have given up all the protections of an AFM collective bargaining agreement, when they could have instead run for office in the Local as you suggest.

    • Samuel says:

      THAT is well said.

    • Vince Belford says:

      Not to mention leaving the AF of M pension plan which, even though the multiplyer is now down low, is still a better deal than going it alone.

    • michael says:

      If the local union management are not members of the collective bargaining unit, then they cannot vote “for, or against” any collective bargaining agreement.

      At the same time, if they are undermining “the will of the cbu,” then this is the best way to deal with the situation.

      • bratschegirl says:

        It is the union, represented by its Local officers, and not the members of the actual bargaining unit (though there may be crossover between those categories), that signs the CBA. If those officers are doing their job properly, they will not sign an agreement that has been rejected by the membership of the unit, but they absolutely can do so; at least, they could decades ago when this happened.

  • Robert Levine says:

    This kind of situation is invariably the result of a long backstory, full of bad relationships and fighting over turf. Most AFM locals know better than to tell the musicians of one of their orchestras what to do and would never get to this level of dysfunction. The “76 out of 175” suggests that most of those not voting were not regular members of the orchestra, but rather subs – I guarantee that the Charleston Symphony does not put 175 musicians on the stage for concerts.

  • Roger Soren says:

    Only the contract musicians in the Charleston Symphony can vote on this, and there are less than 30 musicians left. Therefore, this number of 175 eligible voters can’t be accurate.

    What else is left out of this article.

  • MacroV says:

    Members of the Seattle Symphony left the AFM 25 years ago and formed their own union – the International Guild of Symphony, Opera and Ballet Musicians. Basically it was a divergence of interests where the AFM was reliant on the dues from the symphony musicians but not really advocating for them sufficiently. So they established their own bargaining unit. Not at all an “anti-union” thing, just a more precisely targeted one.

    • MWnyc says:

      If I remember correctly, the Seattle musicians decided to leave the AFM because the AFM’s inflexible rules at the time about recording fees meant that the SSO couldn’t afford to make any records. (At that point, U.S. orchestras were notorious for being too expensive to record commercially, and few orchestral recordings were made here.)

      And shortly after the SSO musicians formed their own union, the orchestra began making a steady series of recordings of American music for Naxos.

  • David Wetherill says:

    Is the orchestra now a collection of independent contractors? When there are grievances, who will iron them out?

    • michael says:

      The management has the musicians right where they want them: Zero Power. How can there be a “collaborative working relationship” when the musicians gave the management the only card they have to play?

      They now have the “‘right to work’ for less,” and have zero recourse on any action that the management chooses.

      Is this the model for other “professional” orchestras?

      Wave the white flag. Just “organize” as a “community orchestra.” Actually, it should probably be a “pay to play” orchestra.

      This is the model to destroy the industry for professional musicians!


    • michael says:

      The resolution of any grievance is whatever management tells you is the resolution.

  • Stereo says:

    It sounds like US musician unions are as bad as the MU in UK.

    • Don Smith says:

      The MU in the UK has in the past saved the 4 London orchestras (on different occasions) with huge interest-free loans, without which each would have ceased to exist. There is no comparison between MU and AFM; I know, having been a member of both.

  • michael smith says:

    I will speak of my own beliefs here, and will in no way try to speak on behalf of my colleagues in the Charleston Symphony

    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.

    2. 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.

    3. 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.

    So, at that point, we had to go to the NRLB to determine which extras were eligible to vote. At an NLRB hearing, we contended that about 70 or so people should be eligible to vote, as these are the people that play with us most often, and honestly, make it possible for us to perform as an orchestra. We felt these people truly shared a community of interest with the musicians of the CSO. We came up with a formula based on some other NLRB cases. In a nutshell, if you worked just 10% of the services that the core is required to, we felt you should vote. We felt this fair, and wanted lean on the side of being extremely inclusive out of respect for our colleagues.

    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. The NLRB used a ruling that has been applied to orchestras for quite some time to side with the AFM, but in reality, the precedence they used has nothing to do with symphony orchestras, and shows that the NLRB has very little understanding, if any, of our industry. Nor do I feel they made much of an effort to learn either, but that’s a different blog posting….

    The ironic part here is that in previous situations, the Local put in writing that the extra musicians are not and have never been part of the collective bargaining unit. Only after the petition to decertify was filed did they begin to become staunch supporters of musicians that really only played with us a few times, many of which aren’t even AFM members. An obvious ploy to stuff the ballot box, and create a divide amongst musicians. Signing emails “in solidarity” doesn’t create solidarity. It’s the actions of leaders, and a community of people that are tired of being walked on that creates solidarity.

    At no time were we trying to disenfranchise musicians that truly shared a community of interest with us. We can’t perform without extra musicians, and we value all of them as friends and colleagues, as well as their talents. However, we also didn’t think it fair that someone that played one runout gig one time should be voting on the future of an orchestra that we depend on for salaries and benefits for our families. Clearly those people don’t either, because they didn’t bother voting.

    If this was as simple as “retaking the Local” we would have done it. As I said, the problems here are much deeper/systemic. There is too much to write out here, but I wanted the community to know that we did not take this step lightly. Given what I said above, the fact that we had as much of a voter turnout on a mail-in-ballot was pretty amazing. If you worked somewhere for 12 hours last year, and were then bombarded with negative rhetoric for the next year, would you bother walking to the mailbox to vote on something that doesn’t really have any bearing on the rest of your life? But, if on the other hand, you were becoming dependent on the future of said organization, wouldn’t you vote?

    About the amount of people that we originally contended should be voting, voted. And by a majority of almost 2 to 1, (meaning that way more than just the 24 core musicians) we wanted out.

    I’m sure this will spark debate, and I’m happy to share what I can.

    Again, I am speaking only on behalf of myself, and am not trying to represent anyone else for the purposes of this blog post.

    As I said in the article above, We took a leap of faith, and we don’t know where we will land yet. Your support of our musicians as we try to figure out our future would be much appreciated.


    Michael Smith


    Charleston Symphony Orchestra

    • MWnyc says:

      Thanks very much for posting this, Michael.

      Any chance you could fill in those of who don’t live (or no longer live) in Charleston as to why the Symphony seems to have lurched from crisis to crisis over the past decade or so?

    • Wanda S says:

      Thank you for your very thoughtful post. I very much enjoyed reading it, and it gave me a lot to reflect on. As a fellow musician, I truly appreciate your courage and willingness to explore new paths that may continue to lead us through this next millennium. The best to you and your colleagues in Charleston, and I will be keeping my fingers crossed!

      And how novel to put the trust back into a “board of trustees” and vice versa, and work together to make things happen. You guys are pretty awesome.

    • Samuel says:

      Thank you this post, Michael. My only question, however, concerns this statement: “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.”

      Is it possible to share what these deep, systemic problems are?

    • NYMike says:

      Michael: At some point in the future when you come to realize that management has all the leverage and a complete upper-hand, you will want to organize once again into a collective-bargaining unit (read: unionize). Good luck!

      • MWnyc says:

        NYMike, they may well want to do that at some point in the future – once the orchestra’s finances have stabilized and its existence doesn’t seem so precarious. (If I’m remembering correctly, the Charleston Symphony has been close to running out of money three times in the past dozen years or so.)

        I hope they pull themselves out of the fire somehow. It would be both sad and embarrassing for a city that is for three weeks a year one of the arts capitals of North America not even to have a symphony orchestra for the other 49 weeks.

  • Alan Penner says:

    I see this as the only possible solution for the MN Orchestra.

    • Sarah says:

      It’s not the Union keeping the MN Orchestra musicians from signing a contract; it’s the scorched-earth demands of management. There isn’t a problem between the musicians and their union. Management would be only too happy to break the union. Very different situation than the one here, apparently.

      • Alan Penner says:

        “Scorched-earth?” Oh, brother.

        • NYMike says:

          Alan Penner: what do you call a policy of cancellation of some 250 work-rules and refusal to budge off of management’s original draconian 30-40% salary giveback demands if not “scorched earth?” Oh, and cancellation of Carnegie Hall concerts, Bis Records Complete Sibelius Symphonies contract and the forced departure of Maestro Vänskä….

      • MWnyc says:

        ^ like ^

    • Robert Levine says:

      You don’t think the unanimous votes by the Minnesota Orchestra musicians against management’s proposals say something? Or the fact that the president of the Twin Cities musicians union brought the MO committee chair to the AFM Convention to speak?

      The only think de-certifying the union would do for the MO musicians would be to end their ability to resist their board and management. I don’t know how that would be a “solution.”

  • Lindsay Groves says:

    The rules governing non-profits in the US are bizarre and self-defeating. Too bad they had dumb union leadership. Impeachment should be available to locals and to non-profit employees. These institutions are public utilities. If unsuccessful leadership were toss-able, none of this stupidity (SC or MN) would be necessary.

  • I am jumping into the fray with a great degree of hesitation. However, I know I will regret remaining silent. So I won’t. Just the same, regardless how futile the effort might be, I think that there is a moral imperative to try to stop an individual from drinking poisoned laced Kool-Aid. This may provide some explanation for the length of the decertification election’s Excelsior list.

    I am a long time member of Local 802 AFM and serve as its in house counsel. I speak here in my capacity as a music lover who believes that musicians are to be cherished and venerated. I do not speak as an attorney or in any capacity on behalf of Local 802 or the AFM. However, being a Union-side labor attorney provides me a perspective that is different from others who may voice their opinion here..

    What I cannot stress enough is that the decertification of a union is more than just the renunciation and rejection of the union itself. The legal implications are as profound as they are devastating. Selecting a certified bargaining representative under the National Labor Relations Act, gives those obtaining the certification the ability to seek and compel good faith bargaining from their employer. Without a certification order, true bargaining is not legally sanctioned and most likely will not occur. Once decertified, your voice at the table is silenced. Regardless of how benevolent management may appear to be, they are now free to exercise complete discretion over terms and conditions of employment. And they will. No pair of rose colored glasses will shield you from the cold hard fact that management will act solely within its self-interest when it serves them to do so. Any procedural and substantive protections accorded employees under previously negotiated collective bargaining agreements will now be eviscerated. No matter how collegial and cooperative a labor-management relationship may be, without a bargaining mandate, employees have no power. Without exception, the dynamic of labor and management is one of relative power.

    I do not know the history behind this vote. It may very well be the product of incompatible internal bargaining tactics and strategy. It may be a fundamental difference in union philosophy. It may be an internal power struggle. In my experience, I have seen more internecine union disputes with each and every one of my clients than I care to remember. However, never once, regardless of how dysfunctional things got, was there ever an effort to seek decertification. The reason is clear, It is better to move forward as a fractioned whole then as separate individuals.

    Decertification also rejects the possibility that employees can have collaborative relationship with management in the context of a sanctioned bargaining relationship. It just depends upon who the leadership is. Which leads to the larger issue, why not seek a change of internal leadership? Yes it is hard, but yet well worth the effort. Legal remedies are also available at the National Labor Relations Board, for a union’s failure to represent it members. Decertification clearly is the nuclear option.

    Finally, as Sarah points out the situation in Minnesota is vastly different. The Union cannot be held responsible for the lockout that occurred there. That was entirely management’s choice.

    I truly wish the members of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra Godspeed. Only time will time the wisdom of this action.. . .

    • Will Prok says:

      Thank you, Harvey, for pointing out a real concern for the musicians going forward. To be clear, as has been mentioned by other posters, an orchestra is a unique working environment. It is a group of artists who come together to create art. This also means, unfortunately, that it can be subject to a degree of “un-togetherness” that is also unique in workplaces. Whenever a large group of talented people get together, rivalries and competing visions and interests exist. One of the benefits many people overlook in a CBA/AFM orchestra is that it forces the group of artists to figure out how to speak together as one and settle among themselves what they will ask for and what they will accept. With no AFM contract, these competing forces will now start working independently to get their agendas realized. Musicians will, in short order, start to oppose one another when one group pushes for (and maybe even gets) something that management is not willing to give to some other group or individual. Preferential and selective treatment of musicians, and the resulting resentment, is in the cards here.

      Also, Harvey points out something that could do with a little elaboration. Management is currently prohibited from a number of unpleasant workplace rules and practices under the CBA. Now, with no CBA, they are free to do as they wish. They can reduce pay, reduce services, fire members with no basis in performance, pile on extra work demands (with no corresponding compensation), hire whomever they wish as extras and subs, and that doesn’t even get into the issue of workplace conditions (i.e. temperature, lighting, rain, length of work time, etc.). They can make more favorable offers and conditions to some people and deny them to others. Tying this all in to my first paragraph, the only leverage the musicians had against these practices was unity through collective bargaining and an enforceable CBA, which are all gone now.

  • Once a violinist says:

    The lack of facts in this article, plus the assumed implications sound more like a Fox news story than a true report on what happened in Charleston. But, good luck to the folks in Charleston when they discover that their collaboration with management does not result in what they hoped for, and that the union was not the enemy.

  • christina says:

    For all of you leaving anti- union comments, do you even know how much Charleston pays their players?

    A truly stupid move on so many levels but two things in this article are very disturbing.

    1. Only 76 of the 175 eligible musicians casted a vote.

    2. Trumpeter Michael Smith, who chairs the symphony’s Negotiating Committee, said: ‘For the health of our organization, it’s really important that the musicians have a collaborative working relationship with the board and management.’

    On point 1, this is complete apathy. Shame on you for being so apathetic. So Michael Smith, if the Charleston musicians are too apathetic to even go vote, how do you expect them to have a “collaborative working relationship.” On point 2, it certainly doesn’t say much for Michael Smith’s ability as a negotiator to “collaborate” if he can’t broker an agreement while being in the union.

    Charleston musicians, are you really that apathetic and naive?

    • K Yoshida says:

      It is possible that the musicians of the Charleston Symphony are very much aware of their rights and responsibilities as union members and had reasonable expectations for the level of representation their Local was to provide. It is possible these are not anti-union musicians but union members who felt disenfranchised from their Local. Some have suggested these musicians should have run for Local office, an admirable goal in theory but sometimes not political reality if the majority of union members are not in sync with the goals of symphony musicians.

      My point is we shouldn’t rush to judge. The musicians of the Charleston Symphony were put in a very difficult situation either by their own making, or by mistakes made by the officers of their Local and the AFM. I would hope that AFM members would send a message to the Charleston Symphony musicians that the AFM is there to support them should they decide in the future to once again unionize and rejoin the AFM.

      • christina says:

        K Yoshida, I would say sure that it is a possibility, but if the musicians don’t explain the reasons, the expectations and instead have their lead negotiator put out a statement saying they are splitting from the AFM, ‘For the health of our organization, it’s really important that the musicians have a collaborative working relationship with the board and management.” then I fail to see how we are suppose to see it any other way. Michael Smith really in his tremendously lengthy explanations just says they did not receive enough representation from the local or national level, but then he never cites a single example and only speaks in vagaries. On top of that he says this was “not political” yet he mentions that SC is a Republican, RTW state. So are we just suppose to “believe” him when he offers no real explanation?

        As far as the AFM reaching out, well I would have to say that I don’t see any examples that they had not “reached out.” My feelings about the Charleston musicians are that if they felt under represented, they should have run for office and turned out the vote. After all, it seems like hardly anyone votes in this apathetic union anyways, and a symphony musician would have likely won. As far as reaching out if they want to join the union again, great. For now though I consider anyone working for the Charleston Symphony to be a scab. I know this is not PC to say, but it is true.

    • MWnyc says:

      Christina, Michael Smith made a lengthy post on this very comment thread explaining the situation at the Charleston Symphony, discussing in particular the numbers of musicians eligible and voting.

      Did you read it before you started flinging insults?

      Of those 176 musicians who were deemed eligible to vote, do you know how many are fully-contracted musicians (unfortunately, even they aren’t full-time) of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra? 29.

      • MWnyc says:

        Whoops, not 29, 24.

      • christina says:

        I did not read the lengthy post that Michael Smith made before you deemed what I said as “flinging insults.” It was not up when I posted earlier but I read it today. Having read it, I still stand by my comments as I have voted on EVERY ballot issue that has come up with my local and NONE have been as drastic as decertification. Call it “flinging insults” if you want, but it is nothing but apathy.

  • Richard Lee says:

    I’m a little confused… By decertifying AFM and the local, are the musicians of CSO giving up the right to be represented by some other union? Seattle is no longer part of the AFM, but don’t they still have a CBA?

  • Under NLRB precedent, they will have to wait one year before they can hold another certification election.

  • Ben says:

    Given that Union members don’t tend to come easily to this kind of conclusion, I can only assume it was well merited. Unfortunately unions have a great deal of inertia and will continue to fight their cause long after their hand is spent. In the world of vocal music unions are doubly problematic as work rules protect senior musicians whose instruments are long since shot from years of use. Imagine if the NFL players union tried to prevent teams from releasing older players due to their diminishing abilities. Well we have just that in union opera choruses.

  • Once a violinist says:

    I would be more likely to assume that their decision was misguided and misunderstood, if making any assumption at all. Not knowing the dynamics of what led them to this decision, my first assumption certainly would not be that it was “well-merited.”

  • Ed Ritchen says:

    What about recruitment of young professional musicians? What about the Charleston Player who might want to audition for a better orchestra, the final steps in the process is playing with the Union Symphony, will he?she be allowed? Would a new conservatory graduate want to get involved with the Charleston Symphony COMMUNITY Orchestra? I have just watched all the work of their past Music Director, David Stahl, be flushed down the toilet. I wish them well.

    • Micah says:

      (What about recruitment of young professional musicians?) There are currently no openings in the orchestra.

      (What about the Charleston Player who might want to audition for a better orchestra, the final steps in the process is playing with the Union Symphony, will he?she be allowed?) Yes. The musicians of any orchestra hear auditions and choose their colleagues, not the union.

      (Would a new conservatory graduate want to get involved with the Charleston Symphony COMMUNITY Orchestra?) Yes. There are thousands of conservatory graduates with no job, and the CSO is far from being a community orchestra. Community orchestras are typically comprised of volunteer members, and everyone in the CSO gets a pay check.

      (I have just watched all the work of their past Music Director, David Stahl, be flushed down the toilet.) I am sorry you feel that way, but I like to think he would be proud that after such a difficult time for the orchestra as what happen just a few years ago, it could bounce back with 3 seasons of surplus budgets, and sell out 90% of its concerts.

      (I wish them well.) Thank You

      Micah Gangwer

      Assistant Concertmaster

      Charleston Symphony Orchestra