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by John Cox 

Negotiation: “a conferring, discussing, or bargaining to reach agreement.” (Webster ’s New World Dictionary, second college edition, 1970)

If there is one topic that is underplayed, if even mentioned, in our schooling as musicians, it is contracts and their negotiation. This is the business of making sure that our hard work, education, and performance abilities are rewarded to the extent that we can earn a living wage. If you grew up in a non-union household, like many of us, then you never experienced anything regarding “contract negotiations” until early in your teaching/performing career when it became time to “re-negotiate” the contract.

Let us examine the negotiating process from the position of the neophyte. Experienced teachers and players will recognize and empathize when recalling their first time at the “big dance” of negotiations. If you recall it, you look forward to negotiations with the same enthusiasm as buying a new car – except that contract negotiations usually extend for months rather than a few frustrating hours.

There will come a day when, as a new employee covered by a bargained contract, you will hear that all is not right with your world. There will be a general announcement, mailing, emailing, or other contact from your union saying: “It’s time to re-negotiate” – four little words that will change your life. Re-negotiate? As a new person covered by a contract (which in all likelihood you never read before signing and wouldn’t have understood if you did), you suddenly feel you have been blindsided by a process for which you are unprepared, and possibly did not know existed. Re-negotiate? You didn’t even know you had negotiated. You were hired, met in a nice office with representatives of the management, and signed a contract – maybe told, “We never give extra money or benefits to beginning employees because it’s not our policy.” Then you may or may not have met at some run-down office building containing your union hall with some cigar chomping old fogies who said, “Welcome aboard, here’s your hand- book for the local, we’re always here to help, don’t get into trouble.”

As to that whole union thing, you are a teacher, a distributor of knowledge; you are an artist, creating great music like magic in front of adoring audiences. How in the world did it come to be that you have more in common with the United Auto Workers and Meat Packers Unions than Aristotle and Bach? So far you have probably regarded the union to which you belong as a parasite to your paycheck – it bleeds you every two weeks like a remora on a shark, and you don’t know why. If only you could keep that little bit going to them, you could afford a better car or better electronic toys that would enhance your personal lifestyle.

So, you show up at meetings that are called by your governing/orchestra committee. According to the Bylaws of your orchestra or teacher ’s local (Bylaws? We have Bylaws?) and according to the pertinent paragraphs of the Collective Bargaining Agreement (the what?!!!), it is time to elect a Negotiation Team who will represent us against (boy, does that word stand out!) the management, the school board, the district, the board of governors, or some other group of administrators.

What does that word against mean and what about those rumblings, critical of management, that now come from your new but seasoned colleagues? You know, the comments such as, “I’m really disgusted by the work load. All management knows how to do is make it harder to do our jobs.” “Man, we really took it in the shorts last time. It’s time to get ours back.” “Those stupid rotten clowns. If they worked as hard doing their job as we do, we would all be better off.” “Man, I just hope we don’t go on strike again.” (again?!!!). (For editorial purposes I’m keeping the comments at a “G” rating – in real life these comments are seldom put this mildly.)

You have been happy until now going to the fine faculty teas held for new teachers, the “meet the board” events, the “we like to show off our new players/teachers who represent the bold new world toward which we are striving” affairs put on by management. Now you are hearing strong comments from your new colleagues against the very folks that you have come to view, subconsciously, as your surrogate parents. After all, they give you an allowance (paycheck) every two weeks. They send you notes from time to time requesting that you should clean your backstage (to aid the janitorial staff), that you should polish your shoes, that your jewelry is too noticeable, that you should not wear perfumes/colognes, or such statements as “in this organization we treat each other with respect.” They arrange special social events to “meet the folks that make everything we do possible,” then invite you along to “be seen but not heard.” Yep, you’ve been living the good life on an even keel but now it’s going to get a bit bumpy.

The great eighteenth-century hornist Giovanni Punto decided to escape his employer and travel to what is now Western Europe to test his “market value.” Let us not be afraid to follow him and our other proud ancestors.

Selecting a Negotiation Team, Polling the Group, Preparing the Group

Now that the preliminary shock has come and gone about impending negotiations it is time to start the process for your group. One of the first tasks is selecting a Negotiating Team. Selecting the right personnel for a Negotiation Team is a good start to the successful outcome of negotiations. This is the team you will be rooting for, betting on, and supporting. At least, that’s what the poor neophyte is hearing from veteran colleagues. Stories will be recounted of how back in ’76 (when we really had the spirit!) ‘Bully’ Bushwacker and Mildred Mudslinger led the charge, rallied the troops, and ‘whumped’ management good. There may also be remembrances of the team that led the group into a strike, or lockout, or some other form of paycheck disruption limbo, and this led to an unsatisfactory contract which split the group into political factions from which it has never recovered.

And while the personalities are important, it is also important to look at your current political/economic climate. How friendly or hostile is your area to unions? How strong are your group dynamics to hold itself together during a protracted negotiation? How are the finances of your organization? Will the talent pool available in the group match the perceived circumstances of the times? These are all conversations your colleagues will be having in the lounge, at the coffee shop, or quietly in rehearsal while the conductor is expounding on musical esotericism (that generally translates into the horns being too loud at letter B).

Many groups have a partial makeup of their Negotiation Team in their Bylaws or Collective Bargaining Agreement (hereafter referred to as the CBA). There will be variations which may include a representative from the orchestra committee, the teachers governing committee, or other representative body that oversees the CBA and interprets it with the other signatory party (management, school district, Board of Regents, etc. and hereafter referred to as the ‘other side’) to protect your rights during the life of the CBA. In many orchestras the ICSOM (International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians) or ROPA (Regional Orchestra Player ’s Association) delegate will also be on the team. Other participating personnel may be mandated by your bylaws, CBA, etc., and will be a part of you team. The union local will also be a part of the team, as most CBA’s are actually between the union (your group) and ‘other side’.

A moment of soapbox supporting the union on YOUR side. There are many collective labor laws that protect you as an individual and they have been put in place on your behalf by the work and strength of unions over many years. And as many folks around the country know, there is the mass of help the union brings when your group is in a labor stoppage situation and you are facing bills with no paycheck. The union and its nationwide membership will provide moral and political support, and just as necessary, monetary help to pay the bills such as cash for COBRA’d medical insurance when the ‘other side’ cuts off your group insurance payments as a negotiation tactic.

Now that the obligatory personnel are in place, there is usually room for ‘at large’ members on your team. (Notice that word ‘team’ to describe your negotiating body. Teams are proven over the long haul to almost always outperform individuals. This is important to remember in selecting your ‘at large’ members.) Generally, nominations from the group are made, with some behind the scenes arm twisting, and then an election is held to determine the ‘winners’. Depending on how your last negotiations went, you may find that nobody wants to be nominated. In our orchestra we had several contracts in which the orchestra felt we had, to put it mildly, lost ground. We had an awful time finding enough people to fill the minimum number of positions available. Then, after two relatively successful negotiations on our part, it seemed like half the orchestra wanted to get in on the action. Regardless of the pool, it is essential that your team consist of people who will do their best to represent you in the selling of your time and talent. Remember, when your team ‘takes the field’ against the ‘other side’ you want to root for them, support them, and you expect them to ‘win’. If they win, you win. You are playing for keeps.

The best people for your team may not be the popular people that normally get elected for your other committees. You may not need Mrs. Congeniality, Best Buddy Bob, or Glamorous Goodheart. What should be considered is either prior positive experience on a team of this type, or the willingness to learn the process in depth. You need people:

  • With the diligence to see a job through to the end.
  • With the tenacity of a teenager demanding your car and wallet for Saturday night.
  • Who will be selfless in negotiating for the group, and not for, nor, against individuals.
  • That represent, as best possible, all the age and experience levels in your group.
  • That will work for you, and work with, but not for, the ‘other side’, and do so with thoroughness, competence and respect for the process and the individuals involved.

It is very important that you have trust in your team to do the last. As much as you would like to see the ‘other side’ light sabered into oblivion from time to time, your ‘CBA to be’ will ultimately result in people dealing with people. The ‘other side’ will have some hard working and dedicated folks amongst them – not all of them graduated summa cum laude from Lex Luther U. (or the old American Symphony Orchestra League – ASOL). These people will rightly be representing their own side’s interests (and hopefully the institution’s best interests!), and they will generally be people who, individually or collectively, you will work with for the duration of your CBA.

Now that your team is built, the team will need to find out who it is representing, what they want individually and collectively, and the strength of the constituency’s desire on issues. Baring the ability to tap your local DMV or library records, the best way to do this is by polling the group.

There are several methods to accomplish this. There is the group meeting or town hall method, the written broad topic survey method (essay), the written in-depth survey which usually has a yes/no or either/or question style with degrees of feeling about that question, and then there is individual listening to the individuals in the group. Each method has its strengths and weaknesses. The large group meeting method has the advantage of getting the group together as a body. By the percentage of the attending total the Negotiation Team can determine how many folks really care about the process, and gauge their strength of support. On the other hand, often these meetings can be overlong. A few individuals tend to dominate the agenda and conversation, and many folks who have needs or ideas are just too shy to speak up because of a PEF (Personal Embarrassment Factor), which is often apparently missing from the aforementioned few individuals).

A fun survey method our Negotiation Team hit upon is a blending of the town hall style meeting with ‘Speed Dating’. In this we invite the group to a potluck dinner held at our stunningly decorated Union Hall. People are free to sit with whoever they like for dinner, and no more than 6 to 8 can fit at any one table. (Curiously we have found that couples tend to split up and be at different tables.) After the dinner the Negotiation Team, which has assigned each member with a main topic such as compensation, working conditions, auditions, health and welfare, etc, circulates from table to table. Each team member has 15 minutes at a table for their topic, and any and all table members may speak to that topic at that time. This serves several purposes – it keeps any one person or small group from monopolizing the floor, it encourages shy members to speak within the confines of their friends and not in front of the entire group, and more ground can get covered when everyone knows their turn will come on every topic. Surprising insights will also come that had not been considered before. It helps insure that EVERY constituent (and team member) feels fully engaged in the process. And by doing this, we found we have accomplished more than twelve hours of conversation in less than two.

The Team is then reassembled to go over the conversations and use this to help draft a written in-depth survey. In a new collaboration effort to link the ‘The Horn Call’ with the IHS website, sample surveys and returns and other future pertinent documents will appear on the website for members. Linked on the website with this article is a sample Broad Topic Survey. There is also a sample In-Depth Survey. Future postings will include a returned In-Depth Survey compilation example that will list priorities and relative strengths both pro and con for issues, with explanations. In knowing the strengths pro and con a Negotiation Team can determine how far the group wants its Team to push and how far the Team will be backed by the group. This is very important when facing the ‘other side’ – how many, how big, and how prepared are the weapons you have to negotiate with, and how supportive is the ‘army’ behind you.

It is also important during this time for the team to prepare the group for the coming negotiations. An important task is to regularly keep in touch with the group at large. This can be done one on one by individual team members and by group meetings from time to time. Thanks to the computers and the Internet it is also possible to post frequent progress updates on the groups’ website (if it has one) in an internal section, password protected of course. Our team has even posted non-sensitive updates on our bulletin board at work. (This tends to get the attention of the ‘other side’ and let them know the team is working and UNIFYING the group by keeping it informed.) By now a team and group will understand that negotiations are a lot of work. In upcoming articles we will explore the topics of: Getting along as a Negotiation Team and constituency communication interaction Preparation and Research, Research, Research. Formal exchange and meetings with representatives from the other side Getting to “Yes,”Signing and aftermath. And, preparations for the next round of negotiations It is impossible to call a negotiation ‘fun’, but by proper preparation and work, it can be very rewarding. Putting together a team, coalescing a group, and sharing the experience can be a positive group building process that can rival the best of rehearsals in creating community cooperation, spirit, and camaraderie.