Labor Unions Stop the Music

Mozart and Chopin have never had a nemesis like a union scorned. All around the nation, orchestras and symphonies are going silent, crushed by inflexible union contracts that restrict competition, force unsustainable benefits and limit managers’ ability to make decisions. 

The unfortunate result for music lovers and orchestral workers is that our cultural institutions are starting to buckle under the same burdens that have crippled school districts, uniformed services and municipal governments throughout the land.

Take the case of the beleaguered New York City Opera, whose financial woes have led to a recent announcement that it would be forced to take unpopular austerity measures. In an effort to keep the music alive, City Opera aims to find a cheaper space than the David H. Koch Theater, where it pays $4.5 million a year, and reduce its 48-member staff. 

Not so fast. Last month, Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians and the American Guild of Musical Artists issued a symbolic vote of no confidence in City Opera’s director, George Steel. 

Guild Executive Director Alan Gordon went so far as to say he would rather not have a City Opera than give in to the cuts. “In that form, City Opera doesn’t deserve to exist, and if you can’t run City Opera as the people’s opera, then someone who can should take over,” he told The New York Times. 

So when the City Opera this month announced a new schedule that would allow it to keep performing around the city, the union responded with protests and litigation. It has gone so far as to ask state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to keep the City Opera from moving, alleging that it “has breached its fiduciary duty.”

That’s the kind of union intransigence that has threatened school reform and kept budget rolls inflated with outsized entitlements. Perhaps it’s no surprise that this stubborn attitude has become a tactic in the music world – and not just in New York, but all over the country. 

In April, the Philadelphia Orchestra Association was forced to file for bankruptcy with millions in debt and under pressure from unsustainable union contracts. The debt is due in large part to its obligations to the American Federation of Musicians union pension fund. 

The $1.8 billion fund was in critical status last year, according to the federal Labor Department, with less than 65% of the money needed to pay out members’ retirement benefits. 

The pension fund, effectively managed by the union, is funded by several employers, with each being liable for all the workers in the plan. In order to withdraw from the plan and escape liability, the Philadelphia Orchestra would need to pay the union $23 million – a sum the orchestra association says it simply does not have. 

That same month, the Detroit Symphony and its unions finally reached a deal yielding wage reductions and a shorter season, following a six-month strike that shut down the symphony and threatened to scuttle the entire season. Even with the concessions, the Detroit Symphony will still have a $3 million operating deficit.

Not only are venues shuttering, but our musicians are facing their own version of outsourcing. 

Raea Jean Leinster, a freelance nonunion violinist, says that unionized musicians have become so expensive that companies needing to make recordings often look abroad. “Because many European countries do not have the same tradition or structure of strong music unions as the United States, hiring overseas musicians is a more attractive, cost-effective alternative for the film industry and music companies to record soundtracks,” she laments.

Lifting the grip of unions is key to keeping the music alive. New York’s own Orchestra of St. Luke’s operates on a freelance model in which musicians are hired for specific performances and are not guaranteed anything the orchestra cannot provide.

“One of the things that makes us resilient is our flexibility,” says St. Luke’s head Katy Clark. “We don’t spend what we don’t have. We don’t guarantee work to our musicians and don’t require that they turn up. Even though you might think this would be anarchic, we have very stable personnel to an amazing extent.” 

Unsurprisingly, St. Luke’s has a balanced budget and no operating deficits. Is that a coincidence? Of course not.