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Music Union Challenged in Seattle

Times Staff Writer

In a move that classical musicians across the country are watching with keen interest, members of the Seattle Symphony orchestra have broken ranks with the nation’s powerful musicians’ union and declared the new International Guild of Symphony, Opera and Ballet Musicians as bargaining agent.

“The long reign of the American Federation of Musicians has now been broken,” proclaimed guild founder Randolph Baunton, the Seattle orchestra’s principal percussionist and players’ committee chairman, after his victory last week. “Seattle is the beginning,” he said.

Is it? Does the step taken by Seattle’s classical musicians mark the start of a national movement to break with the 98-year-old federation and its 200,000 members, or will they remain the only players outside the fold? Are relations harmonious between the federation and the men and women who play for symphonies, opera and the ballet?

“I feel very concerned for the musicians who have made this unfortunate choice,” said federation official William Creelman. “They have cut themselves off from the mainstream of classical music.”

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But there are indications that musicians with other city orchestras may be reconsidering their relationships with the national union.

Tom Hemphill, a percussionist with the San Francisco Symphony, suggested that city could be the next battleground--in two years when the musicians’ current contract expires. “We have slowly been building support for the guild and keep looking at what our relationships with the local are. Either the growing presence of the guild will cause the federation to behave the way we want them to behave, or we’ll move them out.”

“All over, orchestras are reassessing their positions with the local,” said Charles Ullery, a principal bassoon for the St. Paul (Minn.) Chamber Orchestra.

“I don’t think there will be a great movement (for the guild) until we see what will happen in Seattle.”

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Sparked by themes of “self-determination” and “no taxation without representation,” Seattle musicians actually took three separate votes on the union representation issue last Wednesday night.

First, the 89-member Seattle Symphony, plus those free-lance musicians deemed eligible by the National Labor Relations Board, chose the guild over the federation, 63-48, with one vote for no union representation. At the same time, musicians who play for Seattle Opera--most of whom belong to the symphony (the opera does not have its own orchestra)--voted 51-39, with one no-union choice.

Complicating matters, musicians who play for Pacific Northwest Ballet--a majority also symphony members--registered a 45-45 tie, with one for no union. Unless there is an election challenge by Wednesday, a labor relations board official said a rerun election for the ballet, with the choices limited either to the guild or federation, will be held soon.

Creelman is Western states administrative assistant to the federation’s international president. He spent the summer in Seattle and told The Times the union does not intend to challenge the results.

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“Seattle is very unique,” Creelman said. “They (the musicians) do not have the support of their colleagues nationwide. Differences of opinion and the problems between Local 76 and the Seattle Symphony have been a continuing problem for about five years, and they are problems that have never been resolved to the satisfaction to either party.”

Guild founder Baunton, claiming the guild now has members in a dozen other orchestras--including two unnamed members of the string section of the Los Angeles Philharmonic--said: “We are the first of what we consider to be many orchestras to leave the AFM or become represented by themselves in concert and affiliation with the guild. We want to do it ourselves.”

He declined to reveal how many members he has. Most, if not all, of the guild members outside Seattle also belong to the federation, he indicated, and many in Seattle still do as well.

But Lew Waldeck, head of the federation’s orchestra division, said “until the election the guild was not a union,” and dual membership in competing unions is prohibited.

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Breaking with the federation, said the union’s Creelman, means the Seattle musicians will be isolated in the musical community.

“They will no longer have access to professional organizations like ICSOM,” he said, referring to the International Conference of Symphony, Opera (and Ballet) Musicians, a coalition under the union’s umbrella. “They have cut themselves off from the Recording Musicians Assn.”

At the heart of the Seattle dispute is numbers: Baunton claims that symphony musicians have been paying 79% of the Seattle local’s dues but constitute only 6.7% of the membership.

That situation is repeated in many of the nation’s cities, according to Brad Buckley, a bassoonist with the St. Louis Symphony and ICSOM’s chairman. He said the majority of the nation’s 48 orchestras constituting the coalition “pay 60% or more of their union’s dues and represent just 3% or 4%" of the membership of their various union locals.

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He added that in cities such as Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, where there are thousands of working musicians, there is no imbalance.

At least in part as a response to the Seattle situation, the classical music coalition last summer formed a structures committee to deal with the classical musicians’ problems with the union.

Irv Segall, structures committee chairman who plays viola for the Philadelphia Orchestra, said his committee has “investigated other ways of structuring the symphonic portion of the federation. Things like a trade division which other international unions have and which are more able to cater to the needs of a particular division of work within the union.”

Last year the coalition also unanimously called upon the federation “to force internal reform of the Seattle local including trusteeship if necessary” while urging the musicians to “reconsider . . . leaving the AFM.”

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The Seattle dispute erupted in 1981 when union work dues were raised. In 1985, when there were the first rumblings of disaffection, the national union reduced dues, and moved to resolve other issues, including payment of legal fees during negotiations.

By January of this year, orchestra members were considering “an amicable divorce” from the local, and soon the federation’s national leadership offered the Seattle musicians a new “orchestra services program.” The union said it would take contract negotiations away from the local and handle them out of federation headquarters in New York.

Baunton said he didn’t want “to do business with someone 3,000 miles away.”

“This (Seattle) problem didn’t come up overnight, and it won’t be solved overnight,” Segall said. “There must be some way of circumventing the local without disaffiliation. In this jet age, locals may not be the way to go. Union-busting is now a national pastime, and what is the sense of busting off from the mother lode?”

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Meanwhile, old contracts with the Seattle Symphony, Seattle Opera and Pacific Northwest Ballet, which expired Aug. 31, have been extended. Managers of the three institutions say they would have no problem working with the guild.

Edward Birdwell, executive director of the symphony and former director of the music division within the National Endowment for the Arts, noted: “I’m going to have a new bargaining agent to negotiate with, and that’s about all there is to it. There was bad blood between the local and the symphony musicians and, like one of those inner family fights, you lose track of what the fighting was about.”

“This is not an anti-union fight,” added Birdwell, who still holds his musicians’ union membership as a horn player. “These guys are pro-union. Seattle is a big union town. Walter Meany was born and raised here. Harry Bridges started the West Coast longshoremen’s union here.”


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