Commentary: Myopic arts unions are "shooting themselves in the head"

Terry Teachout, The Wall Street Journal, 4/28/11

The high-culture business models of the past don't work anymore. In particular, the subscription-based models that kept opera and theater companies and symphony orchestras afloat throughout the 20th century are no longer viable now that younger Americans are unwilling to commit in advance to attending future performances, and most of these groups are still trying to find consistently effective new ways to balance the books.  And what's the moral of the story? Here's part of it: High-culture unions that fight to hang on to an untenable status quo are shooting themselves in the head. Labor leaders invariably respond to managerial cries of disaster-around-the-corner by arguing that their members should not be made to suffer today for the managerial mistakes of the past. But in the end, it doesn't matter who made the first blunder. Everybody in the culture business, union leaders included, has been guilty of chronic myopia when it comes to outmoded business models. The point is that there is no longer any alternative to root-and-branch fiscal reform. What's more, managers and board members now know this. Increasingly, they're willing to shut up shop altogether -- or declare bankruptcy -- rather than purchase short-term labor peace, as they did in the past, by agreeing to contracts that they can no longer afford.  When unions choose cooperation over confrontation, the results are almost always beneficial for both sides. [Arts organizations are] in trouble, and unless they find ways to slash costs and lower ticket prices without significantly diminishing the quality of their artistic product, they will go to the wall. That means salary cuts and shorter seasons. It also means rethinking the business models of the past century.


Commentary: Unions are definitely part of the problem, but...

Brendan Kiley, The Stranger [Seattle], 4/29/11

Unions are definitely part of the problem -- but I'm increasingly convinced that the large-nonprofit model is totally fucked. It was invented a few decades ago [sic], and all of its bedrock suppositions (about philanthropy, audiences, ticket-buying behavior, government assistance for culture, the foundation of the American economy, the willingness of boards [to] pay attention) were wrong, wrong, wrong.  Small, energetic theaters like Annex and bar theaters like Re-bar (when it produced more theater back in the day) are the future.  The stage equivalent of Old Hollywood is over. But you already knew that.


Commentary: Blaming the union contract will not save a struggling arts company

Backstage at blog, 5/1/11

Mr. Teachout [says] if a union chooses posturing over actively working with the given company, these days they may likely end up with unemployed members if the company fails.  This is true.  But I also think Mr. Teachout missed an important point: posturing and grandstanding from either the union or the company will not help to create a contract that benefits both parties.  For instance, companies need to stop complaining about their employee pension plans as if they were some magic money-sucking fairy that appears every full moon to drain the company's coffers.  Pension plans are employee pay.  That's it.  Failure to pay into a pension fund as required by a contract is a breach of that contract, just as failing to pay employees their "take home" pay would be breaching the contract.  No company would be allowed to only pay 50% of their vendors' bills simply because they didn't want to pay the other 50%.  They agreed to the price, so they have to meet their commitments.  A contract, union or not, is a commitment. If the company needs to reduce pay, they should say exactly that, and not that "the pension plan is the problem."  But they still need to meet their prior commitments.  Blaming the union is blaming the staff: the very people doing the work that the audience is getting tickets for.  The staff is expected to do their job according to their contracts.  They expect the employer to do the same.


Commentary: Why single out unions as the culprit in arts' struggles?

Kelly Kleiman, WBEZ-FM [Chicago Public Radio], Onstage/Backstage blog, 4/26/11

Conventional wisdom about the source of arts' groups funding troubles [argues] that orchestra and theater bankruptcies prove that artists are just too damned expensive.  Oh, absolutely, we wouldn't want to send signals to workers of any kind that their labor has value, and especially not to workers in those frivolous arts. Who do they think they are, expecting high salaries and pension benefits -- corporate executives?   After noting the shocking fact that union actors receive health insurance, a blogger named Terry S. Davis opines in his ironically-named column "Equity":

"The New Mexico Symphony Orchestra just announced that it's closing its doors, no longer able to pay its musicians. Those musicians, in seeking more security for themselves, became a bigger and bigger financial liability for the organization that provided them jobs. . . I do believe that art, the result of one's passions, can be diminished if the artist is too comfortable; great art often emerges against impossible odds. I also believe, though, that we lose artists and arts organizations when they are given no security whatsoever."

Absolutely: the biggest problem in the arts today is artists' being too comfortable. They're just waiting tables and driving cabs for the life experience. And that's quite a concession Mr. Davis makes: artists ought to have some security. Just not too much.  Whether we can "afford" union contracts and pensions is really a matter of whether we value workers over, say, fancy buildings.  To single out union contracts as the culprit in arts organizations' struggle is to accept the rhetoric of business people (and their Republican political handmaidens) that the worst thing to happen in the 20th Century was organized labor, and that the goal of the 21st Century should be to eradicate it.  Where's the "equity" in that?

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