Unions and a shoe analogy

I’ve had the wonderful experience this weekend of being the Portland Opera Orchestra’s official ROPA delegate at this year’s annual conference. ROPA (and I needed this too) stands for Regional Orchestra Players’ Association, and is a division of the musician’s union that covers some smaller budget, shorter season orchestras in the country. Every year we hold a conference to discuss the status of our respective 85 (!) orchestras, and also plan and strategize for short and long term futures. At its most specific, it’s a technical discussion of our industry. At its most broad, its an annual labor union conference.
At this point, let’s put in an alert here – yes, I did use the word UNION!! This is going to include some language that some readers may find political in nature. I know that unions are hotly debated both politically and personally, but for my own purposes they have been an absolutely invaluable resource, and a very important part of my job. Take the following comments as political if you choose – I myself am going to present them as apolitically as possible.
Here are some questions I’ve received in one way or another:

Q: Why do musicians need a union?

Excellent question. We are a different industry than those you may have traditionally heard of unionizing, such as plumbers, electricians, or airline employees. We have plenty in common with these industries, however, like working unusual hours, high levels of required training, and non-traditional methods of growth and promotion. Virtually none of us have a nine-to-five job, and there are separate rules and regulations that really need to be in place for us. It’s not obvious when we should get a promotion or bonus, it’s not obvious when we should get overtime, and we usually don’t fit into the general mold of an employee who should receive health and pension benefits.
This is where a collective bargaining union comes into play. Once a musician auditions for an orchestra and wins a job, she steps into a long-standing relationship that has been decided upon between the organization’s management, the musician’s union, and the federal and local labor laws. These people have defined everything for our industry: fair wages, fair hours, and fair working conditions. It’s a little harder to see the effort and work these days, but thee effects of it are still apparent. That conductor who has fabulous time management and finishes a rehearsal at 10:00pm on the dot has been trained that way because of a long standing relationship between management and unions. It’s the reason the best rehearsals are run so efficiently, as time management is now part of a conductor’s comprehensive education.

Q: Okay, sure, and I understand why someone who works an unpleasant job would need these kind of good working conditions in place. But you play music for a living! You LOVE your job! So really, what’s the big deal if you go a few minutes over every now and then?

A couple reasons for this. I will acknowledge that we are lucky people to have careers in the creative arts. We have worked our butts off for this career. We started training for it from the first day we ever picked up our instrument, or, for those of us fortunate enough to have music programs in the public schools, the first day of kindergarten. We haven’t stopped training for it yet – daily practice is our continuing education. And yet, through all of this extensive, arduous work, there is a very VERY small percentage of us who can make a living wage at one of these unionized jobs. So we get two unionized jobs. Or five. We commute constantly, a practice referred to in the industry as “driving for dollars.” We teach. A lot. We take gigs that aren’t unionized, but are one-day jobs (think weddings and the like) because that will smooth our transition to our next paycheck. When we’re not doing this barrage of jobs, we’re putting in our hours at home to prepare for them. We’re practicing so that we come to rehearsals prepared. We’re making lesson plans for our students. We’re emailing all the time – parents of students, wedding coordinators, personnel managers – just to make sure all of our ducks are in a row. Every freelancer I know is more organized than the average human. They can rattle off their complicated schedule for the week, mostly because they’ve tweaked it a dozen times that day.
The point of describing all this? We live on a tight schedule. We have our days planned to the minute. We have to, otherwise we run the risk of losing potential income. The start and end times of these unionized services are HARD start and end times. Showing up late to rehearsal is grounds for termination, and so musicians have a simple solution: we’re not late to our jobs. It’s a weird way to live in some ways, and a fantastic way in others, but we’re not going to be able to coordinate our lives between that many employers without clear boundaries and definitions of services.
Point number two: it’s a great job, but it is a job. It’s how we make our income. It’s how we find a place to live, feed our families and ourselves, and care for our instruments that help us get there in the first place. (Side note – can you think of another industry where the employee is required to purchase and maintain some of the most expensive working equipment on the job? There are actually industries where requiring your employee to bring their own equipment is an illegal practice!) And it’s a valid job, not one that a city can point to and call a luxury. The arts are necessary everywhere, as is arts education. We’re a society that’s bound by duty to teach each other how to communicate using every method available, including non-verbal methods. It’s the way we grow and flourish as a species… but too much more on this subject and I’ll have a digression that constitutes a different blog entry.
This is what we do for a living. We are workers. We are laborers. And as laborers, we deserve the same fair treatment and working conditions as anyone else. It can be a different field that presents its own challenges for compromise, but that’s exactly why unions are needed. They are a voice that stands in solidarity with its members and ensures the continued safety and security of the workplace. This has proven to be the best way – the only way – for musicians and management to both be able to perform their jobs effectively. It’s a necessary marriage to have between employees and management, and like any marriage, you need a contract to hold everyone accountable.

Q: Really, though, what has the union done for you lately?

Another clarification is needed here – while the local musicians union is its own entity, I am a part of it. I’m a member, and I pay dues to be one. My dues are not there to be paid in order for my personal benefit. They are paid so that I support myself, my colleagues, and working musicians in my jurisdiction. That club owner that refused to pay that jazz guitarist that night? My dues help cover the cost of the lawyer that files an unfair suit agains him. Those auditions that take place that are supposedly blind? My dues help cover the time of the union steward who attends the auditions and makes sure they are indeed objective. They’re a resource I can call at any time to ask questions about the logistics of my job. And while there’s a population out there that sees them as a hassle, I see them as someone I can rely on so I don’t have to worry about confronting a boss on a daily basis with something I don’t understand or think needs changing. There’s no reason. It’s in the collective bargaining agreement that I helped sponsor with my dues. All I have to worry about is doing my job the best I can.

The Metropolitan Opera situation has all of us biting our nails. It doesn’t just affect the musicians, and unlike a strike, it’s not for lack of the unions trying to bargain and reason with the management. This lockout means the board of directors has unilaterally threatened to shut their doors so that no union members may return to work. This includes orchestra members, singers, stagehands, costume designers, set designers, electricians, technicians… the list goes on and on. The situation could be explained with an appropriate analogy to some sort of office job, although the analogy gets a little ridiculous, but I’ll do my best to try to concoct a scenario.
Let’s say you work for a company that sells shoes. They’re some of the best quality shoes in the world, and so you naturally charge quite a bit for them. You rely on your customers to keep coming back and buying your shoes, so that you can keep producing a quality product year after year.
So your boss decides to take your shoe company even higher, if that’s possible. He wants them to look even prettier, first of all, so he orders grand pieces of art from his shoe artists to decorate the shoe. He orders the laces to be made out of a more expensive material. And he expands his base of shoes that he offers, so that there are different and more kinds of shoes than ever before.
The problem starts to arise when his customer base doesn’t respond like he had hoped. He’s got a lot of product, and while it’s arguably still some of the best in the world, the customer’s reaction to the new line is half hearted. But your boss chooses to ignore this fact, and continues thinking of new and glamorous ways to update and renew the shoe. He continues to order the expensive material to make it happen.
Then it happens – the yearly budget comes out, and it’s clear your company is in a troublesome decline. The purchase of shoes isn’t keeping up with the extravagant designs. The financial department comes to your boss and demands he make some changes to take care of this. So he comes to you, who is responsible for making the super comfy sole of the shoe. This is a job you’ve done for years, and you’re quite good at it.
“Listen,” he says, “Your sole making abilities are state of the art, as they’ve always been. But this company’s got trouble, and we’re all going to have to make a few sacrifices if we want this institution to continue.”
You think that’s kind of reasonable – after all, you’ve seen this company go through various economic times, and it’s impossible to predict what’s coming around the corner. “I’m glad you think so. Here’s what I’m asking.” He hands you a piece of paper listing the concessions he’s asking you to make. It includes cutting your salary by 17%, and cutting your health benefits by even more. When you ask around to your coworkers, it turns out he’s asked for these kind of cuts from all of them.
So you gather your coworkers and meet him at his office. “How are we supposed to make do with this kind of concession? These are drastic cuts, and goes far below the pay that we’ve been established at for many years. Why don’t we take a less drastic cut to save the company? Is there a middle ground we can come to?”
You speak with your boss about this for a while, but he finally gets so frustrated that he cuts you off. “You’re demanding too much for the situation we’re in,” he states, “and until you agree to the cuts that I proposed for you, I’m locking my doors. You can’t return to work, you won’t get paid. Let me know when you’re ready to make the appropriate concessions.” And suddenly, unless you agree to much lower wages than what you’ve been worth up to this point, you’re out of a job.
It’s a little bit of a stretch, but it’s not too unlike the situation at the Met. The fortunate part, as of now, is that the last paragraph hasn’t quite happened. It’s been threatened, but thanks to some eleventh hour negotiation heriocs, the lockout has been slightly postponed. I hope that there is an agreement that can be reached – otherwise, one of the best opera companies in the world stands in serious trouble.
So I don’t end on quite a downer, I will say that you never know what can happen when determined minds come together to make a difference. I don’t mean that lightly – it’s very true. If anyone can work through a situation as dire as this one, it’s the humans that make up the entire organization that is the Metropolitan Opera.


  • Richard Barrett

    This story is reminiscent of many arts organizations that get in trouble. That is leadership that “wants” something and yet has no idea how much it will cost and if the community that supports the arts organization is willing to pay the price. The leadership only recognizes that there is a problem when the financial situation is dangerously critical. At that point the employees become the target of lowest resistance and the leadership team “decides” that they are the solution.

    After, the current disaster is averted the leadership awards themselves large bonus for their leadership skill and starts planning the next disaster….

  • admin

    Precisely. I understand a manager wanting to make a name for himself by trying new things, but you’ve got to have a freaking budget for it. That’s also what a board is for – I’m not sure what was happening there in terms of accountability.

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