01 May 2013

symphonic variations

I've been distracted for the past couple of months by a number of things that lie outside the purview of what I discuss in this space, so the strike at the San Francisco Symphony came and mostly went before I had a chance to post (for what they're worth) my thoughts. They've continued to swirl around in my head, along with other half-written entries I haven't had time to write yet, and so I figured I might as well unload them, since they are less about this specific strike than about things going on in America in general, and besides, as I implied above, I need some distractions.

I was initially surprised by the strike, and then by its bitterness, but sadly I was not surprised by the reactions to the musicians: mostly contemptuous dismissals and reprimands for being insufficiently grateful for management's gracious largesse (check any comments section for any story about the strike over at SFGate.com). They were told that their specialized skills and years of training could easily be replaced, that they'd be lucky to get a similar situation anywhere else, that they had no idea how lucky they were to get anything at all – the usual sneers and jeers that accompany any worker protests in the United States. The flip side of that was also depressingly in evidence, with management repeatedly congratulated for its wisdom, prudence, foresight, and so forth, in steering the symphony through these economically fragile times (you remember the crash the finance industry brought about, don't you? Of course you do! You're still suffering from it, even if those who caused it are not).

I have no doubt that the management of the Symphony has been excellent in many ways. I am sure Symphony management is made up of thoughtful, conscientious, and capable administrators (more or less). But the heart and soul of an orchestra is its musicians. And if you, as a manager, have reduced them to such a state of frustration and anger that they embark on a strike that they must know will be widely savaged, then – and this seems to me a really obvious point – when it comes to perhaps your most important responsibility, you, as a manager, have failed. (But perhaps I am underestimating management's passive-aggressive prudence; why shouldn't they sit back and count on the American public's bizarre CEO-worship to take over and eliminate the troublemakers for them?)

I understand that Symphony management plays a crucial role in making it all happen. I understand the poignancy of making it all happen and then watching others receive the applause, and the irritations and frustrations of dealing with temperamental, self-important people (according to your preferred prejudices and favorite stereotypes, you may take that to refer to wealthy patrons, headstrong artists, or anyone in between). But it's completely possible to have a rewarding artistic relationship with the San Francisco Symphony without having any idea at all who any of the managers are. If, as the musicians were often told, they could be replaced, well, so can management: that's how organizations work. Anyone can be replaced at any time. The replacement might be worse in some ways, or better, or just different, but the organization goes on. (If someone is irreplaceable, what you have is not an organization, it's a cult.) So why tell the musicians they can be replaced, and not tell the managers that? Why jump to attack them? Why not at least withhold judgment, on the assumption that maybe the musicians (who are competent adults, and live in the same world as the rest of us) are the best judges of what their particular situation is?

The deference to executive power shown in many of the strike-related comments is evident throughout American life. People love to sneer at "government bureaucrats" while allowing Presidents insane amounts of power and deference. Wages and benefits have stagnated or gone backwards for decades, while CEOs and others at the very top are given insane amounts of money. Think of all the tax breaks given to the obscenely wealthy in this country – and then we're told that their privileges must be paid for by slicing benefits to the poor and struggling or anyone else who can't buy political influence. During the latest crash you may have heard the expression "privatize profits, socialize losses." On a smaller scale, it looks as if this dreary pattern was also playing out at the Symphony: benefits and large bonuses (and, increasingly, press) go to those at the top, while sacrifices are demanded of those at the bottom (and what used to be the middle increasingly looks like part of the bottom).

Yes, the musicians are well paid (which is not at all surprising or unwarranted, given their years of training, exceptional skills, and the extremely expensive area we live in). But I think what we have here is one of those situations in which facts get in the way of the truth (that is, certain too easily understood and easily publicized facts, such as the players' salaries and benefits, overshadow less tangible but no less real matters of attitude, communication, and treatment – and when you try to explain those things, even you, as the words fly out of your mouth, realize how trivial and petty you seem when these tiny incidents are taken out of the vast and crushing and ultimately ineffable flow of circumstance and occurrence). What matters is not that the musicians receive salaries and benefits worth X number of dollars, but what percentage they receive of the total salary-pie (I didn't hear nearly as many attacks on management's large salaries and bonuses), and how much of the organization's income depends on them (nobody goes to the Symphony to listen to its management). And even more than the money, what matters is how they – as I said, the heart and soul of the organization – are treated.

We hear similar attacks whenever some young athlete complains that his multi-million dollar offer is "an insult" and that "it's about respect." Yes, most of us claim we'd love to be "insulted" in such a manner. But an offer, even if it looks generous to outsiders, really can be an insult, and it really is about respect. Don't most people know this, at some level? Is it that difficult, even given differences of scale, to make the connection between similar situations in our lives and the complaining athlete (or musician)? I was once asked at a job to pick up someone's dry-cleaning, but the executive was so apologetic and gracious, and so clear about the work-related reasons for the request, that I didn't mind going out (in the rain!) to help her out. On the other hand, I've been thanked in ways that left me seething with rage. It was the underlying attitude, of respect or of being considered a second-class citizen, that made the difference. Haven't we all been there?

Those complaining athletes are frequently young African-American men, and the Symphony musicians are artists, and neither group is much respected in American society, but I can't think of anyone who doesn't understand what it means to be taken for granted or treated with condescension. But instead of reacting with support, or at least indifference, people go straight into Day of the Locust mode: not just towards athletes and musicians, but increasingly towards teachers, firefighters, police, nurses, and others who used to be called public servants and are now seen as entitled and uppity because they fight back against the increasing consolidation of money and power. People who attack these workers are asking the wrong questions: instead of "Why should they get generous raises? Why should they get job security? Why should they get generous amounts of vacation time? Why should they get pensions?" they should be asking, "Why don't we have these things? Why have we allowed them to be taken away?"

Yes, I am fully aware that there are problems associated with unions (the BART union is an obvious case in point), but there are also problems, ones that affect more people more profoundly, with unopposed management power. Back when I worked in the dining commons at Cal someone explained to me that the reason I had a surprisingly decent salary for an unskilled student worker was that the full-time workers were unionized – and ultimately, we all benefited from the higher salaries their union had won. There were students who couldn't have put themselves through college on a lower wage. Sure, a few of the unionized workers were lazy, or seemed so to my eighteen-year-old eyes. So what? There are lazy and incompetent people all over (even in management). Most of the full-time employees were hard-working and conscientious and deserved everything they got and more. I wonder if their children have been able to make the same sort of life in this era when unions are regularly jeered at by people who don't realize how many union-related benefits they take for granted.

This dangerous trend of increasing money, power, and respect to the few at the top while life becomes more and more difficult for the growing number at the bottom has been going on for my entire adult life, but it is neither inevitable nor irreversible. That's why even though the striking musicians already made what most people would consider a very generous salary, I supported them, as a step, however small or insignificant, towards correcting the balance of American society. When the strike was settled, the musicians released a statement that was criticized for – well, I'm not sure what. I for one applaud their refusal to back down, to play nice, to pretend that they were bad children who didn't appreciate their wise and benevolent managers. I thought they very appropriately made it clear, in a professional and dignified manner, that management had failed in some key ways and they were holding them accountable for their mistakes. Good for them. Why do we attack people who stand up for the same things we say we want?

Ultimately we all benefit from the social stability and cultural ambition produced when people know they will be treated fairly and with respect. The song tells us that The People United Will Never Be Defeated, but I wonder if we'll ever start moving towards that sort of sympathetic solidarity, or if human nature dictates that that will remain yet another piece of difficult music wafting above a puzzled and resentful public.


Michael Strickland said...

Happy May Day, you socialist.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

You noticed the timing; how sweet of you. It was semi-coincidental, but I was happy to go with it.

I love that anyone who believes in unions and the rule of law and opposes torture is now considered some kind of fringe Leftist nut. O my America, my new-found-land!