Arts and Culture Local News

Neither side has blinked in the Louisville Orchestra labor dispute, and both the management and the musicians are facing difficult futures and the potential end of the orchestra.

The management now plans to follow through on threats to go against union wishes and hire a 50-member replacement orchestra. Finding 50 talented nonunion players will be difficult, but Chicago-based arts consultant Drew McManus says it’s not impossible.

McManus, however, says sustaining such an ensemble will be difficult. Guest players and conductors will be hard to book and community support for a new, potentially amateur orchestra may wane. Noted musician and Chairman Emeritus of the International Conference of Symphony Robert Levine says the plan is doomed to fail. He writes that auditions for new players will be picketed by union members. Further, he says conductors and guest artists will be hard to find for an ensemble made up of players who are persona non grata in the eyes of the union.

McManus agrees. He encourages the orchestra to file for Chapter 7, which he says is all but inevitable anyway. That would require the orchestra to liquidate. But, other ensembles have used Chapter 7 as a way to shuffle leadership and rebuild a new group.

“New administration, new board or combinations thereof. It’s rare that you have to completely clean the slate of everybody. That’s not usually the case. Because inside boards of directors, there’s usually some dissension even if it isn’t publicly known, and even among administrations as well, too.”

“We don’t seek advice from bloggers,” says CEO Robert Birman, adding that Chapter 7 is not a serious option at this point. “Drew McManus is a blogger in Chicago. He doesn’t run an orchestra. He’s entitled to his opinion and we disagree with that opinion.”

A full-scale replacement of unionized musicians with nonunion players would be groundbreaking if it works. Birman says he knows the risks, but he wants to avoid shutting down the orchestra. While replacement players are sought, talks will continue with the union.

“It’s all one process,” he says. “It’s not an either/or equation. We are trying to field an orchestra for the benefit of Louisville, Kentucky. That’s our main focus. So there are concomitant tracks we’re running on to try to field an orchestra.”

McManus says both sides of the current dispute have additional agendas, driven in part by conversations happening in orchestras across the country.

“There’s a strong movement in the management board segment of the business that wants to reduce the amount of influence collective bargaining has on strategic decision making and the income/expense equation and musicians have an agenda that’s basically counter that. They want to maintain the influence they have as stakeholders within the organization and don’t want organizations to use something like bankruptcy proceedings to influence the collective bargaining process,” he says.

Birman says that’s not the case and repeats that he and the board are only seeking a sustainable orchestra that follows the financial plan approved in bankruptcy court earlier this year.

“It was my understanding that their first option was to try and seek replacement musicians and if that is unsuccessful then they may to move to liquidate the orchestra,” says musicians’ negotiating committee chair Kim Tichenor.

The musicians gathered Monday outside of orchestra offices Monday to reject the offer to return to work. They’ve also filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board saying management has regressively negotiated and has set unreasonable deadlines to accept contract offers.

“We will pursue that charge and see where that leads us,” says Tichenor.

The management last sought to sign players to a contract that would cut the orchestra to 55 members by June 2013. The players agreed to shrink the orchestra, but disagreed with the timeline. The management gave them until Monday to agree to the 2013 cuts.

Management says the NLRB complaint was predicted. The NLRB is looking into the musicians’ complaint.

WFPL’s Devin Katayama contributed to this report.