Bargaining NotesNews

Challenge and Opportunity in the Time of Coronavirus

As I write this, at least a dozen ICSOM orchestras have announced the cancellation of concerts in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Some of the cancellations have been forced by an order from civil authorities; others have been a voluntary decision by management. The number seems to grow by the hour.

This trend reflects what is happening across our society and around the world. Countries are closing their borders. Mandatory quarantines are increasingly commonplace abroad. There is a growing sense of global crisis. In the face of this seemingly inexorable tide, it is safe to say that the question of whether your orchestra shuts down is now a matter of when, not if. Plan on it.

In such a time it is important to make every effort to remain calm. To think rationally. To recognize that there are some things we can control, but many things that are wholly outside our control. Panic is the enemy – one far worse than the virus itself. It is a time to engage in prudent decision-making, and not to take rash steps out of fear without considering the consequences.

I have no particular expertise on pandemics and their effect on society writ large. But I do know a lot about musicians and the orchestra business. It’s what I do. So, I have some thoughts on how our community can respond as we head into uncharted territory.

First and foremost, we must recognize that we’re all in this together. This should not be, and cannot be, a musicians-vs.-management situation. Everyone’s interests should be aligned: we all want to take care of our people; we all want to keep our patrons safe; and we all want our orchestras to survive. That means we need constant, open, frank communication between orchestra committees, management, and musicians. Decision-making must be collaborative above all else. Total transparency is required.

Every decision should be made not only in consideration of the immediate problem, but with an eye towards the future. We will come out of this. But every step we take now will determine how we do so. I believe that we can emerge stronger than before: a renewed emphasis on music’s importance to our fellow citizens; a stronger bond within our orchestras, both among our colleagues and within the organization as a whole; and perhaps a new way of doing business that recognizes legitimate needs for flexibility as well as the true value of our musicians as we navigate an uncertain future. We can, and must, put ourselves in the best position to succeed on the other side of this.

I’m seeing some encouraging signs. At this point, most, if not all, of the orchestras that have cancelled services have promised to continue paying their regular members for the foreseeable future. Many of those orchestras have force majeure language in their CBAs, but haven’t yet invoked it. Part of the reason is that musicians and the Union have been willing to offer substantial flexibility to their managements. The AFM is working with employers to allow streaming in place of live concerts; orchestra committees and Locals are waiving work rules where needed. This makes sense: if the orchestra is willing to commit to its musicians, then the musicians can commit to doing what it takes to help the orchestra through this crisis.

Unfortunately, substitutes and extras have not been as fortunate. I am hearing anecdotally that managements that are willing to pay regular members for cancelled work are not extending that to our colleagues contracted as subs and extras. I can understand from management’s perspective the need to prioritize resources; but a solution that takes the most vulnerable among us and throws them under the bus is the wrong one. “We’re all in this together” means all.

That is an example of the kind of short-term thinking that we should avoid, because there are consequences. When this crisis is over, we can have a stronger workplace where collaborative efforts in response to Covid-19 continue; or we can have one where top-down decision-making has angered or divided musicians and poisoned the relationship between musicians and management. Give the financial challenges that our orchestras will doubtlessly face in the weeks and months ahead, the latter outcome would not be productive.

Hang in there, everyone. We will get through this.