Baltimore musicians play their last card

Baltimore musicians play their last card


norman lebrecht

September 10, 2019

The locked-out Baltimore musicians have appealed to the Government to declare their treatment by the BSO illegal. It may be the last shot in their locker. By the end of the week, the musicians must either capitulate to a shorter working year, or face a winter in the trenches. Here’s their latest press release:

This morning the BSO Musicians filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge against the Baltimore Symphony with the National Labor Relations Board. Since June 17, 2019, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has failed, and continues to fail, to bargain in good faith regarding wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment with the musicians. Specifically, BSO has unlawfully locked out the musicians to impose unilateral implementation of terms and conditions of employment without reaching impasse. BSO has also failed and refused to provide relevant
and necessary information requested by the union in bargaining.

At 9:30 am we will resume picketing at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. This will be a silent picket with the musicians dressed in black. They will march in single file in the picket line with their instruments in hand.




  • The View from America says:

    I can’t imagine what this is going to accomplish. Some huge groundswell of support that’s so far gone untapped?

    Get real. This isn’t Minneapolis, it’s Baltimore. Where the one is “high dudgeon,” the other is “primal shrug.”

    • guest says:

      Its not only Baltimore. There are prosperous counties that the BSO has access to. Consider that when TwoSet went on their world tour in 2018 they gave 2 sold out shows in: Helsinki, New York, Chicago, Toronto, Vancouver, and Columbia, MD. Why Columbia, MD? Because there are an incredible number of kids playing instruments in this area (Howard County) and many youth orchestras in the greater Baltimore area. (I can count 10 without counting them all). I’ve never seen the BSO taping into this with a runout series. While its only 30 min from Baltimore, there are probably many people who don’t want to deal with traffic, parking, and their fears commuting to Baltimore for a show. I see that BSO management isn’t really trying to solve their problems. What I see is the same efforts in Baltimore City that appear to have done nothing for them.

      • Sally says:

        This is great in theory and I am sure the BSO would love to perform all over Maryland, but you’re not considering the substantial cost involved with taking an orchestra on the road. First, the BSO once had several runout series, and one by one they were cancelled…one of the venues went bankrupt, and I’m sure costs and lack of sales contributed to the demise of the others.

        In Howard County, Merriweather would be a great place to host the BSO, but the operations cost there is massive. Think of all the staff needed to run a venue of that size – security, ushers, parking attendants, concessions. Add to that a rental fee, production expenses, and the cost of transporting the Orchestra and their instruments (it’s not cheap to move 80 people and large instruments), and you end up losing far more money than you make. Not an option for a cash strapped organization…it takes more resources than the BSO currently has to make that possible.

    • V.Lind says:

      One is Mary Tyler Richards and the other is Frank Pembleton…or John Munch.

    • Florestan83 says:

      You must be a complete idiot if you don’t realise that Maryland is that second richest state by per capita income in the entire country. Second to only DC which is just 40 miles away and is a short train ride from the 6th largest city and a national financial centre: Philadelphia. There’s lots of cash floating around that part of the East Coast.

  • Labor Guy says:

    There are two things evident here from the two-headed offer that, according to the Baltimore Sun, management has left the players with.

    First, given the upcoming work of this committee created by the Maryland legislature, management seems uninterested in a long-term deal. Their first option sounds like a one-year deal with considerable givebacks on summer pay. The second is a play-and-talk extension of their previous contract until the committee completes its work.

    Second, is that based on the musicians’ characterization of the proposal as “take it or leave it,” this is probably a last, best, and final offer from management. For those not familiar with the intricacies of U.S. labor law, what that means is that if the musicians vote it down, management could declare an impasse and temporarily enforce the terms of the offer. This would explain management’s refusal to continue negotiating, at least prior to a vote. It would undermine an impasse argument.

    It also explains the musicians’ unfair labor practice filing. ULP filings don’t resolve themselves quickly but if management is found guilty of a ULP it sometimes ends up on the hook for back pay. It’s a fairly predictable tactic by labor.

    So musicians don’t want to work under the terms of a final offer, and management doesn’t want the risk of losing a ULP. If anything, it probably just leaves both parties with the status quo for now, because management will require the ULP to be withdrawn as a condition of any agreement. (As an aside, re. impasse, it’d be interesting to see how far the musicians have budged off of *their* original offer. They don’t ever seem keen on talking about that, which makes me think the answer is “not very far.”)

    The musicians made a huge tactical error in not going on strike last spring. They gift-wrapped for management an opportunity to initiate a work stoppage during a summer period when musicians are getting paid but aren’t working. That imposes considerable economic burden on musicians, but almost no pain on management, as they aren’t having to cancel concerts every week, refund tickets, placate grumpy corporate sponsors, etc. The whole point of either type of work stoppage – a strike or a lockout – is to apply economic pressure. And the best way to obtain leverage through a work stoppage is to make sure you’re in control of when the work stops.

    The Chicago Symphony strike in 2012 is a good example of how to apply this leverage. Then, the orchestra walked days before a large gala fundraiser, a three-day Carnegie Hall residency, and a week-long tour of Mexico. And guess what? The strike was over in about 48 hours, because it’d have been a hot mess for management to have to cancel a bunch of high-profile events. But BSO musicians, by doing zilch this spring, handed their management an opportunity to get the de facto 40-week contract they wanted, and the resulting cost savings, by simply locking them out over the summer when nobody’s paying attention. That’s just awful negotiating strategy.

    (It’s for this reason that strikes also tend to resolve themselves more quickly than lockouts – because labor can choose a time to strike that hurts management the most.)

    Anyway, best of the luck to the musicians, and get better negotiators next time. It’ll save you a lot of grief and lost wages in the end.

    • sam says:

      “The musicians made a huge tactical error in not going on strike last spring. … That imposes … almost no pain on management”

      Pain on management is pain on musicians: Cancelling concerts and refunding tickets would mean even less revenues for an organization already under tremendous stress because of its precarious financial situation, each dollar refunded is one dollar less for salaries. Then there is the loss of good will for the musicians, concertgoers may never return, affecting future revenues as well.

      And to preemptively strike would’ve been to preemptively forego a paycheck since Spring, with zero guarantees of early and favorable resolution. Here, the musicians at least got paid up to the summer. The Chicago strike of 2019 proves my point: it was a disaster for the musicians, management blithely cancelled concert after concert week after week, the musicians lost and they won’t recover their missed paychecks and out-of-pocket medical insurance premiums for at least 5 years.

      There is leverage only if the community cares. The community no longer cares. Whether it’s Baltimore or Chicago.

      • Labor Guy says:

        Some good points, thanks for commenting! I’d concur entirely that the musicians have the losing hand here, for the reasons you’ve articulated. If we assume that they aren’t aware of that (people have amazing ways of building alternative realities in their minds), then their best approach would’ve been to strike in the spring. If we assume that they ARE aware of it, then their best option would’ve been to settle in the spring and take their lumps then. Which is why their current position is so curious.

        Even now, their best bet is probably to accept the play-and-talk offer management put forward, because it gives them the opportunity to go back to work at wages defined by their previous contract, which I suspect we’d both agree is something they aren’t likely to get in the next deal – unless it’s one of those fewer-weeks-for-higher-weekly-base trades that sometimes get made when orchestras go through this type of process.

        Orchestras like Baltimore want to hold up orchestras like Minnesota as some kind of model. And admittedly, things in Minnesota are vastly better on many levels than they were pre-lockout. But it’s like they forget that those musicians in Minnesota also gave up nearly a year-and-a-half of pay to still end up taking a 15% cut. And many of them were whisked away to do one-year stints with other major groups during that time.

        This is a common problem when people make a living doing something into which they dump all of their emotional energy. They lose the ability to make rational decisions. The market isn’t interested in paying musicians for what they believe to be the intrinsic cultural and social value of their work. That gap gets filled by philanthropy. And those dollars, especially in communities like Baltimore, are harder and harder to come by.

  • kundry says:

    Who cares? It is a middle of the road orchestra, in a failed city, which has lost its artistic significance since they appointed Alsop – a mediocre conductor. The days of Zinman and Temirkanov are long gone. Advice to the musicians – take what you can get from the community and find ways to reinvent the orchestra and make it interesting ( starting with new artistic leadership) – right now, it is not.

    • otto says:

      Exactly right

    • Opus131 says:

      Zinman? Seriously? I’ve played under all three of these conductors. Zinman is the worst of them, and it is not a close contest.

      • Guest says:

        The guy knew how to make a good recording. Some of the recordings from the Zinman era sound like Cleveland…that level.

    • Mick the Knife says:

      Has worked great in Syracuse which now has a season that is comparable to a community orchestra.

    • sam says:

      It’s striking (so to speak) that when Chicago went on strike, all these other orchestras contributed tens of thousands of dollars to the CSO musicians, but for Baltimore, nada, zilch, nothing.

      It’s like, even for musician colleagues, they have a hierarchy in their minds, like some orchestras are worth saving, and like some are not.

      (Or maybe everyone saw the utter futility of trying to help out the CSO musicians for a failed cause.)

      • gloriarex says:

        The ICSOM orchestras are in full support of the BSO. To date, orchestras around the country have sent around $250,000 in support of this orchestra. We send money to all orchestras who are locked out or on strike no matter their size. There is no hierarchy when it comes to supporting our fellow musicians.

    • Stereo says:

      You’re certainly right about Alsop. Probably the most overhyped very ordinary conductor in history.

    • JPAULO says:

      I can assure you that this is no middle of the road orchestra !! Or certainly wasn’t a few years ago when I last heard them. I think they give some of the bigger profile orchestras a very real run for the money. Some of their solo wind chairs, trumpet, flute and oboe come to mind quickly not to slight any others were beyond world class. Despite what type of city Baltimore may be at the moment this ensembles possible demise is a national level tragedy.

      • kundry says:

        The words “world class” are a devalued currency , used indiscriminately in our time. The ensemble possible demise would not be a national tragedy , not even a local one. What is a real tragedy in Baltimore , as well as in LA, Detroit , San Francisco , etc . is the urban blight , complete with homeless people, abject poverty, rats, syringes, etc. on the streets and the failure of the education system for those on the margins of society. A 980 000 dollars annual salary for Alsop is beyond insulting in this environment.

        • Jack says:

          And you think the demise of the BSO will immediately result in all those symphony donors pitching in to cure the ‘urban blight’ of Baltimore? Spare me!

          The BSO is one of those orchestras on the fringe and could well go under. If it will I do think it’ll be a tragedy as the death of any great organization that practices the art that I love is a tragedy.

          I’m a far left lib and work for the homeless, but it rankles me to see artsy fartsy types try to equate social problems and the arts as some either-or. Just spare me that, please! Let’s just be unhappy when another good group bites the dust if that’s what might happen here.

  • Terence says:

    “Ask a lot but take what is offered.” Assyrian proverb.

    Or more generally, are you bargaining from a position of strength? If not, what leverage do you have?

    With a lock-out the management saves money, the musicians lose money.

    Not a good spot to be in guys, with x hundred applicants for every orchestra job.

    I wish it wasn’t so.

  • anon says:

    Question about labor law: Is management allowed to hire scabs?