The Corner

Talkin’ Union

In today’s Impromptus, I return to a subject I have visited regularly: unionism in music, and the baneful effects of that unionism. At the beginning of this month, Carnegie Hall was to have its opening night. But the concert was canceled several hours before, because the stagehands decided to strike. They all make more than $400K a year. The top guy makes $530K. As I say in my column, we’re not talkin’ horny-handed sons of toil.

I have received a good deal of mail on the subject, mainly from people telling me their own horror stories concerning unionism and music. I won’t publish any of them just now. The pattern is familiar. But I wanted to make a couple of points here, ones I don’t make in my column.

1) Probably ten years ago, an official in the music biz told me, “You probably think of the New York Philharmonic as an orchestra. You should think of them as Local 802.”

2) In the last week or so, the Mariinsky Orchestra has been in town. (This is the renowned orchestra in St. Petersburg — Russia, not Florida — which in most of the Communist period was known as the Kirov.) There are basically no older people in this orchestra. Very little gray or white hair. American orchestras are full of gray or white hair.

As I understand it, a member of the New York Philharmonic has to get through one year’s probation. Then he’s in for life.

We can all appreciate the protection. We can appreciate a guard against age discrimination. We can also appreciate that age may bring increased musical wisdom (although it may not). (And technical facility is another thing.) Still, there is possibly something to be said for a conductor’s free hand, or an administration’s free hand: the freedom to broom those who are not up to snuff; the freedom to go out and get the best, regardless. Then again, a conductor or an administrator may fire someone out of something like pique. Stories of Rodzinski, Szell, Reiner, and other podium tyrants are legendary.

For me, these are tricky questions, with no clear answers. But a handful of millionaire stagehands preventing Opening Night for thousands? How did we get this way? Why do we allow it? As I say in my column, the shame is on the union, but it’s also on us (society).

P.S. The heading of this post refers to an old organizing song. It was sung in the days when union members were not wealthy spoiled brats.

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