In an unusual move likely to draw attention from orchestras across the country that are coping with financial or labor hardships, the musicians of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra voted to end their affiliation with the union that has represented them for decades.
The vote to decertify was cast by mail earlier this month and tallied Thursday by the National Labor Relations Board — after a delay caused by the recent government shutdown.
Seventy-six musicians of nearly 175 eligible to cast ballots voted 49-27 to break from the union, Local 502 of the American Federation of Musicians, according to trumpeter Michael Smith. He chairs the symphony’s Negotiating Committee and witnessed the vote count in Winston-Salem, N.C.
“For the health of our organization, it’s really important that the musicians have a collaborative working relationship with the board and management,” Smith said as he drove back to Charleston from Winston-Salem. “Under the previous conditions it became virtually impossible to do that.”
He said it was essential to “keep up the good trend,” bolstering the symphony’s social and economic standing, in order “to make ourselves a better asset in the Charleston community.”
“It really is overwhelming the amount of support we’ve received from the community,” Smith added. “The musicians are very appreciative.”
The symphony’s operations will not be affected by the change, said board chairwoman Cynthia Hartley. The season will proceed as planned, and existing rules will remain in place for now.
“I think it’s a real demonstration of the trust that the musicians have in the organization,” Hartley said. “I think it’s also a real positive from the standpoint of their understanding that to be successful as an orchestra in the future, orchestras need more flexibility, they need to be nimble, and the fact is, unions sometimes get in the way of that.”
Hartley said the decision to decertify was entirely the musicians’. Board members and staff sat on the sidelines.
“It’s pretty remarkable,” she said. “There is not a lot of precedent. ... My understanding is it’s very unusual for orchestras to have musicians who are not part of a union.”
Jay Blumenthal, director of the symphonic services division of the American Federation of Musicians, said decertification is rare. At least 95 percent of musicians in large budget orchestras are unionized, he said.
Rochelle Skolnick, legal counsel for the symphonic services division, said she did not think the decision by Charleston Symphony musicians signaled the onset of a trend.
“We view this as a real aberration,” Skolmick said. “We have no reason to believe that the musicians of any other institution are considering such as step, or that anyone would be interested in doing so. This industry has developed over many years contracts that provide substantial benefits for the musicians. ... No one is interested in forgoing those protections.”
She said the decertification effort was driven by relatively small group of CSO musicians — about a third of eligible voters — who chose to nullify union protections for all musicians associated with the symphony.
“We think it was very short-sighted and likely to prove damaging to the vast majority of musicians,” Skolnick said.
Every few years, the Charleston Symphony organization has negotiated contracts with musicians that specify salaries, the number of full-time players, rehearsal requirements, the number of concerts to be played and many other details, all with often vocal input from local and national union representatives.
In recent years, contract negotiations have twice threatened to bring the symphony to a standstill. The last time, the organization’s financial status, complicated by its existing obligations to musicians, had deteriorated so badly that the symphony ended its 2009-10 season prematurely and contemplated bankruptcy.
Eventually, the symphony trimmed its annual expenditures and musicians agreed to reduce the size of the “core” of players to 24 as part of a broader solution that would lead to a remarkable rebound.
The symphony took in about $2.6 million during fiscal year 2013 and spent nearly $2.5 million. For the third year in a row, it ended its fiscal year with a small surplus.
Musicians have said they are well represented on various committees and play an active role in the management of the organization. Morale has improved significantly, many have said. And while some players have left town for other opportunities, others who remain often are employed by the symphony on a per-service basis.
Yuriy Bekker, concertmaster and acting artistic director, said he is not opposed to the players union and would not speculate on the broader impact of the vote.
“I think that every community is different, every city is different and every organization is different,” Bekker said. “This is what our musicians want. ... I’m thinking about what’s right for Charleston, and this is right for Charleston. And what’s important is that musicians took charge.”
Players may remain union members, but the union will no longer be their bargaining agent with the symphony, he said.
“The orchestra is experiencing tremendous success and the musicians wanted to ensure that we continue that trend,” he said. “Look at what happened three years ago. This was done so history doesn’t repeat itself. I think in our case, given how successful the last two years were, we must continue strengthening our relationship with management to make this a collaborative success.”
Smith said the vote solves one pressing problem but could raise questions that can’t entirely be anticipated.
“We are in uncharted territory here,” he said. “It was a big leap of faith. We really don’t know where we’re going to land, but we knew the situation we were in needed to change.”
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