Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Musician Labor Disputes: Arizona Opera Edition

Things are (yet, again) tense at Arizona Opera.

"We've made a huge sacrifice, and we're going to see what the company is going to do with it," says John Cleveland, Arizona Opera's union steward for the American Guild of Musical Artists which is the union that covers the chorus members. "Either the company is going to get better, or the company will be gone."

Woops. That's a pretty strong statement!

You see Ladies and Gents, Arizona Opera - the resident opera company of both Tucson and Phoenix - is butting it's head with the unions. I know, you're SO shocked, aren't you? [insert obligatory eye roll here]

The Arizona Opera Orchestra Musicians Association has filed an unfair-labor-practice charge against the opera's management, claiming that General Director, bass baritone Scott Altman, sidestepped the union's negotiating committee to lobby the opera's position directly with musicians.

Labor issues seem to be going around like the plague in Arizona. I remember a certain issue not to long ago with the Phoenix Symphony.

In its complaint to the Labor Relations Board, the Arizona Opera Orchestra Musicians Association contends Altman contacted union musicians - current and former - via e-mail. According to Nathan Mitchell, who chairs the musicians' negotiating committee, that violates the federal National Labor Relations Act.

"We've seen the e-mails; we know that they were sent to everyone in the orchestra," Mitchell told the Arizona Daily Star. In addition, Mitchell says that former and substitute musicians and some who are auditioning for the opera also were sent e-mails.

Now, who in their right minds - if we can say "right minds" - violates the National Labor Relations Act via something that is as traceable as EMAIL? I ask you, Chickens... WHO?

It should be noted that the union musicians and the opera have been negotiating a new contract since June... yes, since JUNE! Union contracts expired June 30.

What's the rub, you ask? Good, because you know I'll tell you.

According to the Arizona Daily Star:
The orchestra has 52 musicians from Phoenix, Flagstaff and Tucson. They rehearse in Phoenix for performances mounted there and in Tucson, and many spend the summers performing in festivals around the world.

The musicians said the opera has offered them a contract that maintains their current $101.92-per-service fee rate. A service is defined as a three-hour rehearsal or performance. The opera, however, is proposing the service time be extended by a half-hour with no additional pay, Mitchell said.

Management also is proposing that the musicians pay 60 percent of their travel expenses between Tucson and Phoenix, lose 75 percent of their daily meal per diem and pay for half the cost of their hotel rooms when they are outside their home city, Mitchell said.

"It's basically going to work for free or not," said Cindy Baker, the orchestra's principal second violinist and a member of the negotiating committee. "It seems to us to be sort of extreme."

The expense cuts are tantamount to a dramatic pay cut, the union contends.

"It ends up ... coming out to making $31 or something like that for the whole weekend," said Mitchell, who lives in Phoenix and plays in the horn section. "I enjoy doing it, by all means, but I can't lose money playing a gig."
Of course, when asked about the issues between the company and the player's union, Arizona Opera had no comment, except to pivot the discussion with a Press Release:
Arizona Opera announced today the successful conclusion of negotiations with the Arizona chapter of the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA-AZ) and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE-Local 336-Phoenix). Fruitful discussions between the Company and the Unions resulted in new three-year collective bargaining agreements, ratified by AGMA-AZ and IATSE- Local 336, which run through June, 2013.
The Press Release goes on with one self-congratulatory pat-on-the-back after another. Then, the release ends with an "OH! By the way...." :
Arizona Opera continues to negotiate in good faith with its Orchestra members – the Arizona Opera Orchestra Musicians Association (American Federation of Musicians).

As for the pivot in the conversation - "Arizona Opera announced today the successful conclusion of negotiations with the ... American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA-AZ)". Successful to whom? Successful in that the talks are over and a contract is signed, yes. Successful for the chorus members? Yeah, right.

You see, Arizona Opera recently closed its Tucson production operations and has moved everything to Phoenix. According to John Cleveland, part of this moving plan was to release some of its veteran Tucson choristers from the roster.

Thanks for playing ... bye, bye!

Not so much, though - these valiant and extremely loyal choristers were spared.

Cleveland told the Arizona Daily Star: "...everyone who has sung in the past who lives in Tucson has been rehired, except for the ones who were not available this season. That was one of our big objectives, to preserve the Tucson presence in the chorus. And we achieved that. . . . They are a huge artistic asset to the chorus."

AGMA - which, again, is the chorus' union - also got Arizona Opera to agree to allow choristers to rehearse in their home cities. Early on, the opera was going to require singers from Tucson to travel at their own expense to Phoenix for rehearsals, Cleveland said.

For those who don't know, the distance between Tucson and Phoenix is approximately 2 hours by car. Usually, the Opera Company charters buses for company members to travel to and from.

Traveling at their own expense would have, as in the case of the Orchestra Members, broken chorus members because, as Cleveland pointed out, the chorus has not received any significant pay increase in several seasons. The last raise was a mind blowing 1.5 percent bringing chorus pay to $14.38 an hour for rehearsals and $138.23 per performance, which averages three hours.

After all of this, here is what General Director Altman (R.) had to say:
“I applaud the extraordinary leadership of AGMA-AZ and IATSE- Local 336 in bringing to a conclusion these very crucial negotiations,” said General Director Scott Altman. “Arizona Opera is poised to take an exciting step forward. In this, our 40th Anniversary Season, we begin with a new business model for how the Company operates. I am pleased that these two key Unions are partnering with us as we face the challenges of this new era. I applaud the foresight of the Unions in realizing that the economic and professional well-being of their members is directly associated with the artistic and financial health of Arizona Opera, and it was in this spirit that the negotiations were conducted. I must also note that our Arizona Opera administrative staff has also stepped up in a major way. They have absorbed some severe cut-backs and continue to function at a very high level because they, too, understand what is at stake. Ensuring the survival of professional opera in Arizona is truly a joint effort, and all of us have an important, but difficult, role to play.”
In other words, take note Orchestra Musicians Association. The other unions rolled over - why wont you?

MANY THANKS to my eyes an ears back in Arizona. You know who you are and so do I - that's how it'll stay.


Anonymous said...

Not surprising that the first production of the season is PIRATES.

Ryan M said...

Good article...thanks for keeping Phoenix outsiders abreast of the situation here. Morale among the various AZ opera employees (chorus, orchestra, crew, admin, etc) has been eroding in quick fashion since last spring and I'm hoping it won't tear the company apart!

Bruce Hembd said...

Thanks for the plain talk. Things are indeed tense in the desert.

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