Opera-goers were leafleted on the plight of Louisville Orchestra musicians. The musicians were absent during the Kentucky Opera's production of Mozart's "Figaro" at the Brown Theater over the weekend. (Photos by Brian Tucker for Insider Louisville.)

Labor activists and musicians from the Louisville Orchestra handed out leaflets in front of the Brown Theater in downtown Louisville last weekend in an effort to educate patrons of the Kentucky Opera on the ongoing dispute between orchestra management and the musicians.

The Kentucky Opera attempted to stage a production of Mozart’s “Figaro” this past weekend without the orchestra, opting instead to use what the musicians termed as “rehearsal pianists”.

Until the group collapsed into bankruptcy, musicians with the Louisville Orchestra provided music for the Louisville Ballet and the Kentucky Opera.

“Ludicrous….” said one opera-goer. “Who in the world has ever heard of an opera without an orchestra?”

Enter James U. Smith III.

Anti-labor attorney and infamous union-buster James U. Smith III  joined Louisville Orchestra management in a concerted effort to replace musicians and their contract while denying unemployment benefits under the assertion that the musicians are “on strike,” a charge the players deny.

Smith is a well-known figure in labor circles as a man obsessed with union-busting and an unapologetic defender of unfair labor practices. Smith has challenged the National Labor Relations Board on behalf of  several clients accused of employing illegal tactics to break up labor unions.

The players say they have agreed to management’s demand to cut salaries by 25 percent. The musicians only request was to retain the current number of players, now at 71. The request was denied, and orchestra management continues to demand the total number be reduced to 55 players.

“They [orchestra management] keep moving the goalposts,” says one insider. “We reluctantly agree to the terms, then – bang- it’s something else they want.”

The musicians have been without a contract, without pay, without health insurance and without job security since May 2011. That didn’t stop them from trying to work with management as recently as rcently as September when the musicians played in a production of Carmen for the Kentucky Opera.

This situation has been set up by design to bust the union even if it means destroying the orchestra. The hiring of key figures such as the notorious Smith and the bad-faith bargaining tactics being used by the orchestra’s management point to one goal, and it isn’t the long-term survival of this institution.

The orchestra management’s third “last, best and final offer” was unanimously rejected by the musicians last week. A key sticking point is management’s insistence musicians obtain prior approval before doing any “moonlighting” by performing outside the regular orchestra schedule! This is an unprecedented move, particularly when considering the sizable cut in pay.

Imagine telling a police officer he or she couldn’t make a few extra bucks by providing off-duty security.

The musicians of the Louisville Orchestra are professional artists who cannot be replaced on a whim. Some of them have even uprooted their families from other states to take a chance on Louisville, and they are invested in this community.

Since there are no professional sports teams in Louisville, corporations promote the arts scene as a way to bring in investment, or to entice the promising young executives to relocate to the area. Without a full-time, professional orchestra, Louisville loses a little bit more of it’s competitive edge if the musicians lose their fight to preserve a “world class” group.

For every negative comment received over the weekend leafleting campaign by the players, there were four positive comments.

Labor activist Kirk Gillenwaters talks with a supporter of the Louisville Orchestra musicians.

“We miss you,” said a man entering the door. “This is, simply, an untenable situation.” said another. “They [orchestra management] cannot continue down this path, or they will destroy what we have built here over the last 75 years. It is sad, and I am with you.”

Others said they planned to leave at the first intermission as a show of solidarity with the musicians.

Whether labor organizations or the community at large will refrain from giving to the Fund for the Arts – a major funding mechanism for the Louisville Orchestra – as a punishment to the orchestra’s board is uncertain.

But one thing is certain.

More people are watching this issue, and more of them are becoming interested in the idea of a musician-run orchestra.

There is also a growing chorus calling for the dismissal of the board overseeing the orchestra.

More as it happens.

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Brian Tucker is a lifelong Louisvillian. He is the founder of The Valley Report, and has been writing on Southwest Louisville's political environment for several years.

21 thoughts on ““We miss them terribly”: Opera-going public siding with Louisville Orchestra musicians in labor dispute

  1. Pingback: Opera Patrons Siding with LO Musicians | Louisville Orchestra Musicians Association
  2. I’m a lifelong supporter of unions and tend to be pro-labor, but this is an incredibly one-sided opinion piece, showing absolutely no understanding of the history of the Louisville Orchestra in the last decade or so.  The musicians and their absolute unyielding positions regarding their contracts in the past are at least as much to blame as a management  that failed to respond to the changing realities of the marketplace and patron base.  

    But you fail to even go in to that history. From the two sides involved, you quote only musicians, and when you quote a small sampling of audience members,  you use quotes that could mean anything, depending on your biased story for their supposed emphasis.I want to see an ongoing orchestra in Louisville, but it has to be an organization with more built-in operational flexibility AND accountability, regardless of whether it board-run or musician-run, on both the administrative and performance sides.  But trying to build a one-sided argument like this and presenting it as journalism can only add to the problem, putting ideology ahead of reality.

  3. Also, you should go back and delete the first dozen words of your comment. Any pro-labor person or anyone even casually supportive of unions in general would be able to see what the L.O. management is trying to accomplish with the addition of a person like Smith III to the “team”. 

    Blaming the musicians for the financial condition of the orchestra is ridiculous. The L.O. was content to spend $1 million on filing bankruptcy rather than keeping the music playing. Did the players do that? Did the players pay former Arts director Cowan nearly $400,000?

    What the players DID do was agree to a pay cut. Is that not enough? I bet if they said they would throw off their union representation, all of this would go away. You and people like you SAY the musicians want something for nothing, but it is the board who wants the music to play for free.

    Never in hell.

    Thanks for writing.

  4. I’m a lifelong supporter of unions and tend to be pro-labor, but this is an incredibly one-sided opinion piece, showing absolutely no understanding of the history of the Louisville Orchestra in the last decade or so.  The musicians and their absolute unyielding positions regarding their contracts in the past are at least as much to blame as a management  that failed to respond to the changing realities of the marketplace and patron base.  

    But you fail to even go in to that history. From the two sides involved, you quote only musicians, and when you quote a small sampling of audience members,  you use quotes that could mean anything, depending on your biased story for their supposed emphasis.I want to see an ongoing orchestra in Louisville, but it has to be an organization with more built-in operational flexibility AND accountability, regardless of whether it board-run or musician-run, on both the administrative and performance sides.  But trying to build a one-sided argument like this and presenting it as journalism can only add to the problem, putting ideology ahead of reality.

  5. You should go back and read carefully . . . it’s also posted under “News”, which is how I found it in the first place.

  6. It IS simple. I have a 12 year old, and even she gets it.

    If it is more information on James U. Smith III you seek, look it up. Make sure you include the letters “nlrb” in your google search. That’s what I did. By the way:  The letters “nlrb” stand for National Labor Relations Board, but I shouldn’t have to explain that to a “lifelong union supporter” such as yourself. While you’re at it, look up the definition of an unfair labor practice, which is illegal under labor law. Unfair labor practices include bargaining in bad faith. That means offering a contract, gaining acceptance of said contract, then changing the terms of the contract at the last minute…just as LO management has done on several occasions. Again, the players agreed to a pay cut, a shortened schedule and a wage freeze for FIVE YEARS. I don’t know anyone who would say that came from a group that held “unyielding positions”.

    The louisville Orchestra is just that….it is Louisville’s. It does not belong to the board. Anti-union board members like WDRB’s Bill Lamb are chomping at the bit to bust the union. Again, you’ll have to look up and sit through hours of Lamb’s “Point of View” segments to gain acceptance of that fact.

    By writing in the style I choose, perhaps I assume too much. I assume people are smart enough to understand the material. If they don’t, they’re smart enough to find it on their own. This isn’t a term paper or a wikipedia entry here, bubba. I don’t list references. I cannot and will not spoon-feed you on the technicalities of contract negotiating or NLRB charges. Nor will I explain to you what it means to have a anti-labor board of directors or a union hating weasel like Smith running the show against the musicians. I will tell you that I was present at the leafleting in front of the Brown Theater and I remained for its entire duration. I wrote about what I saw, and it has been well received by everyone except you.

    I used over 700 words to explain the situation as I saw it. Sorry you do not agree. That is all you really had to say.

    Holding back contributions from the Fund for the Arts is being considered because the Fund is still dumping money into an orchestra with NO MUSICIANS. People are saying they will not support donating to an organization that is merely paying the legal fees for a group that is actively trying to bust a union. Those people have taken what is know as a “stand”. And before you ask…yes, I have the names and contact information of those people.  No, I will not give them to you.

    Maybe you should read the Courier Journal. They haven’t taken a position on the situation and haven’t even mentioned Smith’s checkered past regarding organized labor. Besides, they could use the readers.

    Again, thanks for writing. If you feel like doing this again sometime, let me know. But remember, balance isn’t what I do here because I’m not a journalist. I am biased, opinionated, and gosh darn it, people like me.

  7. It IS simple. I have a 12 year old, and even she gets it.

    If it is more information on James U. Smith III you seek, look it up. Make sure you include the letters “nlrb” in your google search. That’s what I did. By the way:  The letters “nlrb” stand for National Labor Relations Board, but I shouldn’t have to explain that to a “lifelong union supporter” such as yourself. While you’re at it, look up the definition of an unfair labor practice, which is illegal under labor law. Unfair labor practices include bargaining in bad faith. That means offering a contract, gaining acceptance of said contract, then changing the terms of the contract at the last minute…just as LO management has done on several occasions. Again, the players agreed to a pay cut, a shortened schedule and a wage freeze for FIVE YEARS. I don’t know anyone who would say that came from a group that held “unyielding positions”.

    The louisville Orchestra is just that….it is Louisville’s. It does not belong to the board. Anti-union board members like WDRB’s Bill Lamb are chomping at the bit to bust the union. Again, you’ll have to look up and sit through hours of Lamb’s “Point of View” segments to gain acceptance of that fact.

    By writing in the style I choose, perhaps I assume too much. I assume people are smart enough to understand the material. If they don’t, they’re smart enough to find it on their own. This isn’t a term paper or a wikipedia entry here, bubba. I don’t list references. I cannot and will not spoon-feed you on the technicalities of contract negotiating or NLRB charges. Nor will I explain to you what it means to have a anti-labor board of directors or a union hating weasel like Smith running the show against the musicians. I will tell you that I was present at the leafleting in front of the Brown Theater and I remained for its entire duration. I wrote about what I saw, and it has been well received by everyone except you.

    I used over 700 words to explain the situation as I saw it. Sorry you do not agree. That is all you really had to say.

    Holding back contributions from the Fund for the Arts is being considered because the Fund is still dumping money into an orchestra with NO MUSICIANS. People are saying they will not support donating to an organization that is merely paying the legal fees for a group that is actively trying to bust a union. Those people have taken what is know as a “stand”. And before you ask…yes, I have the names and contact information of those people.  No, I will not give them to you.

    Maybe you should read the Courier Journal. They haven’t taken a position on the situation and haven’t even mentioned Smith’s checkered past regarding organized labor. Besides, they could use the readers.

    Again, thanks for writing. If you feel like doing this again sometime, let me know. But remember, balance isn’t what I do here because I’m not a journalist. I am biased, opinionated, and gosh darn it, people like me.

  8. Saying that you saw the label “news” tells me you also saw where it said “opinion”. I can do both, sometimes all at once. The head of our complaint department is Helen Waite.

    If you have a complaint, go to Helen Waite.

  9. Saying that you saw the label “news” tells me you also saw where it said “opinion”. I can do both, sometimes all at once. The head of our complaint department is Helen Waite.

    If you have a complaint, go to Helen Waite.

  10. You’re making the typical argumentative mistake here, Brian . . . saying “Anybody should see what this is”, and assuming your conclusion is that obvious one.  It’s not that simple.
    I don’t know Smith, and don’t know his history (how about some support documents besides a page on the LO musician’s website?).  If he the union-buster you say he is, then it’s a bad move on LO mgmt’s part. Give me more evidence.  And I never said that musicians want something for nothing, and I’ll thank you not to put words in my mouth.  

    A short-term bankruptcy expenditure is common, and has nothing to do with paying short-term costs.  It’s usually done in the hopes that the long-term survival of an organization can be secured.  Would you have preferred that LO pay everyone for another year, then go into a full bankruptcy where a complete forfeiture of assets wold have been a necessity?  Would that help the musicians?

    And why go after the Fund for the Arts?  The orchestra didn’t set Cowan’s ridiculously inflated pay level.  And it’s the Fund that has kept the LO afloat all of the years that ticket sales cold never have done it.

    If you can show even the slightest bit of balance in your argument and show ANY unbiased information, great, I’ll be the first to listen.  But you do unions and labor a disservice by making a fiction out of this situation.  Organized labor is at a very important crossroads in America, and to survive it needs to be able to understand its own culpability in situations like this.  And you will never get the goodwill of the community if you demonize management unfairly and without evidence.

    I looked at your Facebook page, and I have to say I agree with most of your politics.  But I think you’re off-base on this one.

  11. So this is a popularity contest?

    As for Smith, association doesn’t prove motive.  The LO board is not made up of angels, but you can’t automatically assume their motives in hiring the guy.  Any more than you can assume that, just because the musicians are union, that they’re a bunch of angels.

    The bad faith issue is one that experts should weigh in on, not you and me (though I do know what the NLRB is ,thanks for your pompous attitude).  Yes, they agreed to those terms.  The musicans also refused to consider releasing  any musicians, for any reason, agreeing to the new numbers only through attrition.
    Have you ever worked at a job that you knew you could hold regardless of the quality of your work or the fiscal condition of the business?

    I’m plenty smart to understand the material, BUB, but, again, you assume I’ll draw all the same conclusions.  Narcissistic much? 

    Again, your piece was in the NEWS section, so don’t tell me you’re not a journo.  Take better care how your work gets labeled, so you can rant in peace in the future.

    Oh, and did I ask for any info about those who agree with you?  Again, is this a popularity contest? You have all of these supporters and you don’t have to share them?

    I went after your piece, again, on the informed assumption that it was NEWS.  You attacked me personally.  Is this your idea of how situations should be resolved?  

  12. Also, you should go back and delete the first dozen words of your comment. Any pro-labor person or anyone even casually supportive of unions in general would be able to see what the L.O. management is trying to accomplish with the addition of a person like Smith III to the “team”. 

    Blaming the musicians for the financial condition of the orchestra is ridiculous. The L.O. was content to spend $1 million on filing bankruptcy rather than keeping the music playing. Did the players do that? Did the players pay former Arts director Cowan nearly $400,000?

    What the players DID do was agree to a pay cut, a shorter season and a pay freeze for FIVE YEARS. Is that not enough? I bet if they said they would throw off their union representation, all of this would go away. You and people like you SAY the musicians want something for nothing, but it is the board who wants the music to play for free.

    Never in hell.

    Thanks for writing.

  13. You should go back and read carefully . . . it’s also posted under “News”, which is how I found it in the first place.

  14. You’re making the typical argumentative mistake here, Brian . . . saying “Anybody should see what this is”, and assuming your conclusion is that obvious one.  It’s not that simple.
    I don’t know Smith, and don’t know his history (how about some support documents besides a page on the LO musician’s website?).  If he the union-buster you say he is, then it’s a bad move on LO mgmt’s part. Give me more evidence.  And I never said that musicians want something for nothing, and I’ll thank you not to put words in my mouth.  

    A short-term bankruptcy expenditure is common, and has nothing to do with paying short-term costs.  It’s usually done in the hopes that the long-term survival of an organization can be secured.  Would you have preferred that LO pay everyone for another year, then go into a full bankruptcy where a complete forfeiture of assets wold have been a necessity?  Would that help the musicians?

    And why go after the Fund for the Arts?  The orchestra didn’t set Cowan’s ridiculously inflated pay level.  And it’s the Fund that has kept the LO afloat all of the years that ticket sales cold never have done it.

    If you can show even the slightest bit of balance in your argument and show ANY unbiased information, great, I’ll be the first to listen.  But you do unions and labor a disservice by making a fiction out of this situation.  Organized labor is at a very important crossroads in America, and to survive it needs to be able to understand its own culpability in situations like this.  And you will never get the goodwill of the community if you demonize management unfairly and without evidence.

    I looked at your Facebook page, and I have to say I agree with most of your politics.  But I think you’re off-base on this one.

  15. So this is a popularity contest?

    As for Smith, association doesn’t prove motive.  The LO board is not made up of angels, but you can’t automatically assume their motives in hiring the guy.  Any more than you can assume that, just because the musicians are union, that they’re a bunch of angels.

    The bad faith issue is one that experts should weigh in on, not you and me (though I do know what the NLRB is ,thanks for your pompous attitude).  Yes, they agreed to those terms.  The musicans also refused to consider releasing  any musicians, for any reason, agreeing to the new numbers only through attrition.
    Have you ever worked at a job that you knew you could hold regardless of the quality of your work or the fiscal condition of the business?

    I’m plenty smart to understand the material, BUB, but, again, you assume I’ll draw all the same conclusions.  Narcissistic much? 

    Again, your piece was in the NEWS section, so don’t tell me you’re not a journo.  Take better care how your work gets labeled, so you can rant in peace in the future.

    Oh, and did I ask for any info about those who agree with you?  Again, is this a popularity contest? You have all of these supporters and you don’t have to share them?

    I went after your piece, again, on the informed assumption that it was NEWS.  You attacked me personally.  Is this your idea of how situations should be resolved?  

  16. Yes. Yes it is. This issue must be resolved this way. This isn’t my first rodeo, here. Sorry if you take any of this the wrong way, it’s just the way I write/talk.

    Happy Thanksgiving.

  17. Yes. Yes it is. This issue must be resolved this way. This isn’t my first rodeo, here. Sorry if you take any of this the wrong way, it’s just the way I write/talk.

    Happy Thanksgiving.

  18. Interesting that the management thinks “the players are on strike”. How’s that? They either are or aren’t; has a strike been declared? Are there pickets and strikers out in front of the hall everyday? Is there a strike fund being used for out of work players? Sadly, these are the times when classical musicians find that they are at the mercy of the wealthy and corporate donors who supply the lion’s share of financial support. If those same people are on the board and are unwilling or unable to raise more money… well that usually gets you fired by the king of nasty capitalists, Donald Trump. But most people won’t fire themselves, they look for scapegoats. Good luck players, hope you have alot of good and wealthy supporters.

  19. Interesting that the management thinks “the players are on strike”. How’s that? They either are or aren’t; has a strike been declared? Are there pickets and strikers out in front of the hall everyday? Is there a strike fund being used for out of work players? Sadly, these are the times when classical musicians find that they are at the mercy of the wealthy and corporate donors who supply the lion’s share of financial support. If those same people are on the board and are unwilling or unable to raise more money… well that usually gets you fired by the king of nasty capitalists, Donald Trump. But most people won’t fire themselves, they look for scapegoats. Good luck players, hope you have alot of good and wealthy supporters.

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