The Truth About Our Negotiations

October 21, 2008 at 9:15 am | Posted in Informational | 1 Comment

The musicians of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra remain on strike! Our work stoppage began October 1; since then, management has issued two press releases and two letters to the musicians. In them, management claimed to have been cooperative in negotiations (saying they have moved on many items) and surprised and disappointed by the move of the musicians. We find the distortions and inaccuracies in these documents to be entirely unacceptable. It is time to tell our side of the story.

Below is a list of claims (indented in quote boxes) made by management in the above mentioned documents. The October 1 and October 14 (PDF) press releases can be found on the WCO website and the Letter from Doug Gerhart here (PDF).

The musicians of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (WCO) today walked away from an employment proposal that offered increased wages, a new pension plan, increased guaranteed work, doubled mileage reimbursement, a job security clause, and countless other contract concessions.

First, let’s address the notion that the musicians “walked away” from a proposal.

Instead, what we did was to say that we accepted SOME parts of the proposal and had issues with SOME parts of the proposal. This is typically how the process of negotiation works. However, Management makes the following statement on all of their proposals,

“The attached proposal is a package proposal. No part of it may be finally accepted without agreement on the entire proposal. It will be available only for a limited time.”

They think we “walked away,” simply because we didn’t agree to every word in their only progressive proposal up until that point (Oct. 1).

Second, let’s address the “offers” they made:

Increased wages

In fact, the musicians agreed to a PAY CUT in the first year.

A new pension plan

This is to be partially funded by the musicians’ PAY CUT in the first year.

Increased guaranteed work

In each contract, musicians are offered a certain number of guaranteed “services,” or days of work which is the minimum we will be paid for. Management’s proposal, which we agreed to, includes a minimum service guarantee FREEZE for string players (more than half of the orchestra) and the remainder of the orchestra’s services go up by ONE SERVICE (less than $200) per year through the fifth year in the contract when most of the orchestra would now be at the strings number. Yes, this is increased guaranteed work, but it costs the WCO less than $3000 per year total for all musicians.

Doubled mileage reimbursement

In the previous contract, musicians who live more than 30 miles from Madison received anywhere from $.03 to $.10 per mile for ONE WAY travel to Madison. We were not reimbursed for our return trip. The new proposal raises that rate to $0.20 per mile for round trip travel up to 150 miles each way, BUT musicians are not paid for the first 30 miles each way (since musicians who live less than 30 miles away are not paid at all). So, on paper, the mileage RATES have doubled, but for most musicians, it amounts to only a small increase or no change at all. It’s also worth mentioning that the IRS rate for mileage is $0.58 per mile! So, while the WCO has indeed moved, their proposed mileage reimbursement remains grossly substandard.

Job security Clause

Management has added language to the contract regarding job security that we have requested, this is true. Regardless, every proposal we have received from management includes a list of things, most notably “insubordination” and “willful misconduct” that musicians can be immediately fired for. What this means is that management reserves the right to deem any behavior “insubordination” or “willful misconduct” and initiate immediate termination without a fair chance for the musician to defend him/herself. Given that this is a non-economic issue, we are baffled by the resistance toward industry standard job security.

Countless other contract concessions

Countless? The point of a collective bargaining agreement is that both sides propose and counteroffer, ultimately reaching a mutually agreeable settlement. Preceding management’s October 1 proposal, only insignificant contract language had been resolved. The musicians had floated many progressive proposals and supposals on major outstanding issues, indicating our willingness to make a deal. These efforts were consistently rejected. In fact, management’s July 16th proposal (which did not include any offer of pension, no movement on attendance, no peer review, no just cause, and many other things which we had proposed) stated,

“The attached proposal is intended as a complete proposal. It contains all the terms that Employer believes should be in the Agreement. Any previous proposal, whether originating from Employer or the Union, that is not included in the attached proposal should be considered withdrawn or rejected.”

At no time did management even consider our proposals – they only rejected them. Nevertheless, we continued to talk and offer rationale for our positions, and for our efforts we were redirected toward insignificant issues at the negotiation table. Only by throwing down the gauntlet of possible work stoppage did we receive our first progressive proposal on October 1. We thought finally we’d be able to work with them, but our suggestions for revisions on the October 1 proposal were once again rejected.

The Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (WCO) contract with the musicians was scheduled to expire on August 31, 2008. In that contract, ratified in 2003, the core musicians were given a 244% wage increase over the last 5 years, making them one of the highest compensated part-time orchestras in the United States.

In the last year of the 2000-2002 contract, section musicians were paid $54.79 for a 2.5 hour rehearsal. In the last year of the 2003-2008 contract, section musicians were paid $140 for a 2.5 hour rehearsal. This is a 155% increase, not a 244% increase. Certainly this remains a great increase in wages, but the WCO also remains a part-time orchestra, NOT a sole source of income.

Beginning 12 months ago, the WCO attempted to begin negotiations with the musicians. Despite its best efforts, the first meeting with the musicians on a new contract was not until February, 2008. During subsequent sessions, little progress was made in the negotiation process, and at one point, the musicians walked out on the federal mediator whom they had requested.

Our meeting times were based on the availability of all negotiating committee members to be in Madison (three lived out of state when we started) and our national negotiator, who works on contracts for quite a few orchestras throughout each year. Little progress was made, as pointed out earlier, because management continually rejected our top issues without explanation. We did not walk out on the federal mediator; we walked out on Foley and Lardner.

The musicians of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (WCO) today [October 14] refused to give any assurance that they will end their strike and commit to play the WCO’s upcoming popular Halloween concert while still negotiating their contract.

On October 7, we received a new proposal from management which included some positive movement. The accompanying email included a request that we respond by October 10 at 3 PM and include assurances that we’d play Halloween. On October 9, we called the WCO offices and spoke to Doug Gerhardt. We were able to give responses on our remaining “big” issues: Attendance, job security, and Electronic Media. Counterproposals on these issues were in Doug’s hands prior to the 3 PM deadline. Our statement to him (as it had been since we went on strike) was that if we reach an agreement on those issues, we will play Halloween and continue to negotiate the rest. On October 10, Doug Gerhart told us that he wouldn’t consider our proposals on the big issues until he had a complete proposal from us on all issues. We told him we needed more time, since we are all busy working our other jobs. He assured us that this was fine and we said we’d get it to him as soon as possible. We worked through the weekend and after a few revisions were able to get a full proposal to the WCO by 5:06 PM on October 14, a few short hours after the concert was officially cancelled. We were never contacted and no one asked us on October 14 if we’d give assurances.

To be clear, canceling this concert had nothing to do with expecting a complete proposal from the committee nor did it have anything to do with trying to force an agreement by a deadline.

Really? Isn’t that EXACTLY what happened? (See above paragraph)

The commitment to attend 90% of WCO rehearsals and concerts dramatically improved the quality of the concerts and substantially facilitated program planning. During the past 2 years virtually all the musicians honored the 90% [attendance] requirement and those who could not were granted further leave. No musician lost their job as a result of this commitment to excellence.

Attendance is a great issue to leave for last. Over the last 5 years, our attendance percentage increased from 67% to 90% per year. On top of that, the number of services we play decreased. So, not only did we have to commit to more playing, but we made less money for it (despite our substantial raise). The bottom line is that this is a PART-TIME job. We need flexibility to make our livings in other orchestras, schools, offices, etc. All of us have at least one other job, and some of us have 5 or more! Over the past 5 years, approximately one third of the orchestra has had their job threatened or was placed on attendance probation for failing to meet the attendance requirement. For one musician, it took the filing of multiple Unfair Labor Practices against the WCO to save her from being fired for being less than 2% under her attendance requirement. At least one musician has quit rather than be faced with this requirement. True, no one lost their job. But would you want to work in an environment where you had to worry that your ability to provide for your family was in constant jeopardy? Not only do we have to worry about making a very inflexible attendance requirement (usually at the expense of other forms of income), but we have to worry about being fired for a lot of other things too! Management has finally, in their October 7 proposal, come down to a number that the musicians can live with for attendance, as long as no major changes occur in the WCO’s programming and operational activities. Our latest proposal agrees to their number, but adds a clause that provides for flexibility in the event that the WCO expands the number of concerts it offers. This is NEGOTIATION.

Since the previous contract expired, our message to management has always been that once accord was reached on the big issues, the musicians would be willing to play even without a finished contract. Our goal was to move things along as fast as possible and get back to performing, despite any management claims to the contrary.

Continually, the musicians are baffled by the responses we receive from management. We don’t understand why lawyers at Foley and Lardner have been allowed to run negotiations. Every time we think we have made progress, they quickly ruin the momentum by setting untenable conditions. They are an outside entity; they care NOTHING for the needs, stability, morale, and general well-being of this orchestra. Perhaps they persist in needless hardball tactics since their credibility as a union-busting law firm could be jeopardized, having been proven incapable of busting 34 employees of a part-time job!

Canceling a concert two weeks in advance is just not necessary, especially when we were close to a settlement. We have tried and tried to show the validity of the non-economic needs the musicians of the WCO have. Management has never given us a good reason for denying us. We have stood up for ourselves and have no plans to settle for less. We believe we have given up a lot to try to get these few basic rights and needs; we have given many concessions from our original proposal which are never mentioned by WCO. They have only tried to play games to make sure that they always have the upper hand.

How does this help the arts community in Madison thrive? It doesn’t! The community has asked the WCO to give the musicians what they need. The WCO is only hurting itself by dragging out the negotiations the way they have. We’re trying to settle – what are they trying to do?


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  1. […] the meantime, the WCO musicians published a point by point response at their website to claims made in WCO press statements and letters from Gerhart while the most recent news on the […]

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