The musicians of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (WCO) issued a press release on 3/26/2009 announcing plans to picket WCO offices at 3:00p.m. CT and then move to the state Capitol to protest WCO Board tactics throughout their prolonged contract negotiations. Details of recent events in those negotiations and reasoning behind the latest round of offers have finally been made available…
The musicians’ picketing activity is in response to the WCO’s latest negotiation offer which was deemed “a last, best, and final offer” by the WCO board. According to the musicians, the activity is an outlet for them to share information about multiple NLRB complaints lodged against the WCO which they assert constricts Union rights to be equal partners in negotiations.
The latest NLRB complaint filed by musicians against the WCO accuses the organization of regressive bargaining, which is defined as reneging on a proposal submitted in negotiations or making a proposal that moves away from agreement by removing or reducing the value of items previously placed the table. In this case, the WCO musicians take issue with a sharp reduction in service guarantees and similarly sharp reductions in mileage reimbursement rates in the Board’s latest offer. Furthermore, the musicians have expressed frustration over having their requests for financial information in order to verify the organization’s economic condition rebuffed by the WCO.
An article published in the 3/24/2009 edition of 77square.com reports that WCO executive director, Doug Gerhart, would not “not comment on the financial stability” of the WCO but did say he was “confident about the future.” Cageyness notwithstanding, the organization provided a glimpse of insight into the reasoning behind the reduction of service guarantees from 75 to 58 in their current offer in a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) attachment to a 3/24/2009 WCO press release.
The reduction in guaranteed services was consistent with the loss of eight services in connection with the performance of the Nutcracker with the Madison Ballet, the failure of other performance sponsors to have yet signed service commitments, the current economic climate, and what appears to be a decrease in public demand for performances by artistic organizations.
According to this information, the only confirmed service losses are those associated with the Madison Ballet Nutcracker and the WCO has indicated they will return those services as guarantee whenever the Madison Ballet resumes using live music (related details here). At the same time, the WCO provided no hard evidence to account for the additional nine service reductions; instead, their FAQ document indicates they believe public demand for performing arts concert events is decreasing.
None of the ECO’s public statements include details about the current season’s ticket sales or subscription sales for 2009/10. Additional details behind the implied uncertainty in concert sponsorships is also unknown and repeated requests to the WCO for additional details regarding concert sponsorships and other fundraising activity have gone unanswered.
The remaining issue related to the regressive bargaining complaint, reductions in mileage reimbursement rates, is explained in the WCO’s FAQ document.
When mileage reimbursement rates were originally discussed, gas prices were at $4.00/gallon. Now that gas prices have dropped significantly, the WCO is reducing mileage rates to reflect the decrease in gas prices, but increasing the reimbursement rates over the term of the new contract to be almost on par with the January proposal by the last year of the agreement.
This is a curious basis as it indicates the revision in the WCO’s offer is clearly based on the fluctuation of gas prices over the course of negotiations. As such, instead of proposing a fixed reimbursement schedule over each year of the contract, proposing reimbursement rates attached to prevailing gas prices at the time of each service period would not only provide a flexible and evenhanded solution but a stronger bargaining position.
In the meantime, the WCO musicians have come out with a new wave in their PR campaign to raise awareness of their issues. In addition to the picketing action today, Todd Jelen, musicians’ negotiating committee chairperson and WCO principal bassoonist, appeared on The 8 O’clock Buzz program on Madison’s WORT 89.9FM. Jelen’s segment is available below:
In the balance is the WCO’s very popular Summer Concerts on the Square program which the WCO has indicated they may cancel if the musicians do not accept their last, best, and final offer by 4/24/2009. According to Jelen, canceling those concerts two months in advance is uncalled for and “the citizens of Madison deserve better.” This echoes sentiments from others inside Madison as far back as 2/2/2009 when an editorial in The Capital Times criticized the WCO’s executive decision to cancel February concerts with what they defined as “more than enough time to settle this dispute.”