Classical Musicians Put Down Instruments, Take Up Picket Signs

You've probably heard of fast food worker strikes and labor protests against Walmart. Well, it's not just blue collar workers.

The longhair crowd in classical music has been wrangling among themselves for the last year or so. What you might expect to be genteel disagreements with attempts at harmony have given way to strikes, lockouts, acrimony, resignations, cancelled concerts, and finger-pointing over money. Lots of money. Like five stagehands making $420,000 a year on average, according to a Bloomberg report.

Take a trip to Carnegie Hall in New York City to hear the example. Earlier this month, the season opening gala was cancelled because the stagehands union -- the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees -- was on strike, as the New York Times reported. No violinist Joshua Bell, the Philadelphia Orchestra, or jazz bassist, cellist, and singer Esperanza Spalding, according to Bloomberg. The stagehands make more than most of the performers and executives.

Stagehands are the people who build sets, operate lights, and install shows, according to the union. What were they striking for? To make sure that a new educational wing would use union workers, according to the New York Times. The fight, going on for a year, wasn't about what the current union workers were making. At least they weren't asking for a raise for what they already do. The chairman of the Carnegie Hall board, former Citigroup CEO Sanford Weill, said that using union help at those rates would drain money from providing education. And so, Carnegie Hall had its first strike in 122 years. It ended after only a couple of days, according to the New York Times, with some limited role for the union in the educational area.

That's hardly the only dispute in classical music, and many of the disputes are lasting longer and turning uglier. The Minneapolis Orchestra locked out its musicians in October 2012 after turned down a 32 percent pay cut, as the New York Times reported. The organization had a $6 million deficit in 2012. Management and musicians were at odds six months before the lockout, for a total of 18 months.

As the Minneapolis StarTribune noted, the tone remained discordant.

"They have chosen to drive the car that is the Minnesota Orchestra over the cliff," said musicians' spokesman Blois Olson.

"We would have negotiated until tomorrow if there had been a substantial reason to do so," said board chairman Jon Campbell. "After 18 months, we are given an offer in the 11th hour that gives the impression of negotiation."

On October 1 of this year, the two still couldn't come to any agreement. Management cancelled two Carnegie Hall concert dates and the orchestra's highly regarded conductor, Osmo Vänskä, quit, as he said he would if there wasn't an agreement by the end of September, according to National Public Radio. At least there's another nearby source for classical music: the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. Oh, wait, they locked out their players, too, according to another NPR report.

There is hope. The San Francisco Symphony and its musicians signed a contract earlier this year after seven months of negotiation, although relations were still strained, according to the San Francisco Examiner. The orchestra had to cancel appearances at the Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall, according to the New York Times. Seems like Carnegie Hall cancellations are a new fad.

And, worse comes to worse, there's always the New York City Opera solution to financial strife. The ground-breaking organization couldn't raise the $7 million it needed to continue and so will declare bankruptcy and go out of business, according to an NPR report. Call it a swan song.

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