Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra on strike

October 10, 2008

MADISON, Wis.--The musicians of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra (WCO) are on strike against unfair work expectations by the orchestra's board of directors.

WCO members picketed their scheduled performance on October 3 outside the Overture Center in Madison, Wis. Members of the Teaching Assistant's Association, South Central Federation of Labor and Interfaith Labor Council joined the picket.

After the picket, musicians treated their supporters to a free performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 2 at the nearby Bethel Lutheran church, and received a standing ovation from the audience.

At stake in the strike is the WCO musicians' right to supplement their incomes from WCO performances--which is between $10,000 and $15,000 a year--with other jobs, including teaching music and performing in other orchestras. The board is demanding that musicians make 90 percent of performances and practices. Typically, a part-time orchestra like the WCO requires only a 50 percent attendance rate, a necessary condition of the musicians having multiple jobs, often in more than one city.

A third of WCO musicians drive more than 100 miles to work in Madison and receive travel reimbursement far below industry standards. Most WCO musicians have three to five other jobs, according to negotiating committee member Naomi Bensdorf Frisch, and the board's expectations prohibit musicians from making a living.

WCO members were alarmed when the board of directors retained a lawyer from Foley & Lardner, a well-known union-busting law firm, to represent management in negotiations.

"Negotiations are always difficult," said Brian Whitty, a member of the American Federation of Musicians Local 166 executive board. "This has been particularly perplexing because of the difficulty of the other side to understand our living and working conditions."

Also at risk is the status of the orchestra's "extras," musicians who are only called for some performances, and "subs" who sit in for absent musicians. Both groups, including some musicians who had been with the WCO for over 20 years, were excluded from the most recent contract. "As a sub, I only make half of what regular musicians make," Whitty said. "But I still have to play all the right notes."

The strike has galvanized Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) musicians to consider unionizing, according to MSO member Liz Marshall, who said that the strike made MSO members realize the importance of having union representation.

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