Musicians’ victory is good for all workers

CLEVELAND – Musicians in the Cleveland Orchestra celebrated Tuesday after a 30-hour strike forced management to drop demands for a wage cut and increase in health premiums.

The new three-year contract between Local 4 of the American Federation of Musicians and the Musical Arts Association freezes wages for two years followed by two increases in 2012 totaling 5 percent.

In return, the players agreed to do some additional charity and educational concerts without pay.

The strike brought out serious problems facing the Cleveland orchestra in an area wracked by unemployment, and it stirred controversy because even base pay for the musicians is in the six figures.

The world-renowned orchestra has been hit with declining ticket sales and charitable contributions as well as a sharp drop in the value of its endowment.

Some commentators, including Connie Schultz, a liberal columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, criticized the musicians for not showing more humility and appreciation for having highly paid jobs at a time of massive economic crisis.

“They argued that it was unfair to cut their pay,” Schultz wrote, “but failed to acknowledge the millions of Americans who have seen their wages and benefits slashed in the last year.” Furthermore, even with a pay cut, “their standard of living would still bear little resemblance to the lives of most Americans in these troubled times,” she wrote.

This is pandering to anti-labor prejudice and phony populism.

A win for one group of workers is a win for all and it’s better than a loss. It shows that workers even in the most difficult of times can hold the line. There’s no reason for shame or apologies.

In fact, the union had already made concessions in recent years, including giving up their defined-benefit pensions for 401k stock accounts. They made it clear they would not continue down that road and degrade the ability of the orchestra to attract talent.

The union’s firmness sets an example that is good for the entire labor movement.

“The union stood its ground and won a victory for everyone,” said Harriet Applegate, executive secretary of the North Shore AFL-CIO. “This is one of the few union stories that has a happy ending. We should all celebrate this victory.”

Schultz took issue with those who compare a musician’s job to that of a “highly skilled factory worker,” saying that “an orchestra member’s hardest day will never rival the regular grind of a factory worker’s life.”

But what purpose does that claim serve? Professional musicians are indeed extremely highly skilled and their skills are acquired after years of excruciating training and maintained with a lifetime of hard work. No one should downgrade the difficult labor of any worker, whether in a factory or in an orchestra.

In fact, the skills of these musicians are so great that it was virtually inconceivable that scabs could be hired to break the strike. The orchestra management was over a barrel and promptly settled.

The music produced by the Cleveland Orchestra is highly prized and generates enormous revenues in ticket sales and royalties, as well as contributing to the prestige and cultural enrichment of Cleveland and the country. Even if the orchestra is currently operating in the red, why take it out on labor? A tiny fraction of the trillions wasted on Wall Street, war and tax cuts for the rich would provide for national programs, such as were enacted during the Great Depression, to support the arts.

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Rick Nagin
Rick Nagin

Rick Nagin has written for People's World and its predecessors since 1970. He has been active for many years in Cleveland politics and the labor movement.