After decades of operating on their own in negotiations with orchestra management, Madison Symphony Orchestra players will vote Feb. 2 on whether to affiliate with the American Federation of Musicians (AFM).
Union supporters say it's just a matter of learning to play in a different key. But to MSO management, the effort is like a heavy metal guitar solo in a Schubert symphony.
On Tuesday, union representatives and orchestra management hammered out an agreement governing the election, which will be supervised by the National Labor Relations Board's regional office in Milwaukee. The pact eliminated the need for a hearing that had been scheduled for Wednesday.
Janice Galassi, the union's New York-based organizing director, calls what's happening in Madison a "natural progression." She says it typically happens when a professional orchestra reaches a certain "level of maturity, both artistically and administratively."
The co-chair of the local union organizing committee agrees. "We've had a very good working relationship with the management of the symphony," says Mike Hennessy, a double bassist. Affiliating with the federation is "really just a result of the growth of the orchestra."
Richard Mackie, the orchestra's executive director, doesn't see it that way. The orchestra, he notes, has had a bargaining relationship with a local players' committee for decades. "We've done very well in the family, and we just don't think we need a third-party intrusion into the conversation," Mackie says. "I don't think the players will get any more out of this, other than paying dues to an organization in New York, than they already have."
Mackie says Madison orchestra members have fared well in recent years, with raises in the 6% range over the last five years and performance bonuses "when our financial performance has exceeded expectations."
But orchestra members tell Isthmus that going it alone in talks has taken a toll. "At least sometimes it seems like the negotiations are fairly hardball," says one player, who has not been directly involved in bargaining. "We just are not trained for that."
Relying on local volunteers to represent members' interests has "become more and more time-consuming," Hennessy adds. "Musicians feel it makes sense to have the resources of the union when you're negotiating."
The vote comes against the backdrop of the continuing strike by the AFM-affiliated players in the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (some of whom also play in the MSO). It's not clear how this might influence the vote. On the one hand, it might stigmatize the union. But if the dispute settles soon -- as appears likely -- that could encourage union supporters.