Louisville Orchestra musicians win tough battle

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Local 11-637 of the American Federation of Musicians, and the Louisville Orchestra Inc. (LOI – the management), recently signed an agreement, ending a lockout of workers from their jobs that began in May 2011.

To understand this we need to travel way back to 1697 and listen to William Congreve:  “Music has Charms to soothe a savage Breast,/ To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.”  More recently, an unsoothed savage breast, marked by malignant greed, class antagonism and lack of common decency, descended upon the Louisville Orchestra. Management offered an unacceptable contract, and the union said “no.”

Louisville Orchestra management then began hiringscabs,” non-union replacements: “Openings are available for qualified symphonic musicians looking for permanent employment to replace musicians ….” 

The bosses claimed they had no money to pay the musicians a decent wage, and then said they must also “downsize,” a euphemism for throwing employees out of their jobs.

The Louisville Orchestra and the Fund for the Arts boards of directors are dominated by Louisville’s financial elite: bankers, stockbrokers, realtors, manufacturers, law firms, health care providers and profiteers, and utility executives. There is big money behind these folks.

Yet and still, orchestras are in crisis all over the country. The League of American Orchestras reported that US orchestra paid attendance fell 8% between 2002 and 2007. Young people don’t attend orchestra performances as much as older people. As older people move on, will there be replacements from the younger generation? Yes, but only if there is music appreciation in the school curricula.

Truth be told, music appreciation in the classroom is dying. In Indiana, the Monroe County Community School Corporation voted to trim $4.5 million.

Louisville Orchestra management filed for bankruptcy in late 2010. In May, 2011 the union contract expired. Both the Bankruptcy Court hearings and the negotiations between the musicians union and management were well covered by local media and extended over more than six months.

When the 2011-12 school year started in September 2011, the staff of the Jefferson County School Board (JCSB), as well as its seven board members, were well aware that the management of LOI was not going to be able to fulfill a contract that both parties had signed long ago for a music appreciation program, scheduled for the spring of 2012. The contract was supposed to be the continuation of a 70-year-old joint effort.

Regretfully, JCSB became an objective ally of Louisville Orchestra management. The school board cancelled this 70-year-old music appreciation program for all 14,000 4th– and 5th-grade students this year, depriving LO musicians of a desperately needed source of income. The JCSB, in essence, let itself be dictated to by a vendor that could not fulfill a signed contract.

“Keep Louisville Symphonic,”‘ a nonprofit formed by the locked-out orchestra musicians, was, on the other hand, indeed able to fulfill the contract that LOI could not. But the school board scrapped the program just the same, using the excuse that it was too late for the music appreciation program to take place in the coming school year. 

When the orchestra management began advertising for outside musicians, so as to break the back of the union, there were reports that the musicians recruited to replace the locked-out Louisville Orchestra musicians would be coming from the ranks of Catholic high school music students and from the Jewish Community Center Orchestra.

Catholic Social Justice informs us: “The economy must serve people, not the other way around. All workers have a right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, and to safe working conditions.”  What would Thomas Merton say about scab musicians?

I spoke with a prominent member of the Louisville Jewish community, and he called the replacement musicians by their rightful name: “scabs.” Yet the deafening silence on this issue by the mainstream Jewish community contradicts a point made by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “Morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”

A notable exception in the Jewish community was Uriel Siegel, the distinguished maestro who served as music director of the Louisville Orchestra for six years, and who came back to Louisville a few months ago to picket the Kentucky Opera alongside the locked-out musicians and their supporters. (The lockout also had adverse consequences for the Kentucky Opera and the Louisville Ballet.)

The union musicians and the orchestra management finally did reach an agreement. It was a tribute to the tenacity of our brave band of musicians; they got what they got under dire circumstances – musicians with major illnesses who were facing big hospital bills and no health insurance, for example.

Local government had become involved. A key role was played by Louisville Metro Council President Jim King, no big-time friend of working people but someone who may be positioning himself to run for mayor next time around. He was perceptive enough to want an agreement. Kentucky AFL-CIO President Bill Londrigan played an important role, as well.

The musicians behaved with dignity, integrity and steadfastness in the face of a management determined to break its back and destroy its union. To those who knew right from wrong in this struggle of workers versus bosses and said nothing, we quote the words of Anaïs Nin: “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

Ira Grupper, irag@iglou.com, is a retired labor and peace activist in Louisville. This article was originally published by FORsooth, newspaper of the Louisville chapter of FOR, Fellowship of Reconciliation.

Photo: Louisville Orchestra Musicians play at Frankfort Ave Trolley Hop.