Magazine article International Musician

A Historic Look at the Unionization of the Boston Symphony Orchestra

Magazine article International Musician

A Historic Look at the Unionization of the Boston Symphony Orchestra

Article excerpt

The following is an excerpt from my upcoming book about the history of the American Federation of Musicians with a look toward the future. Founded in 1881, the Boston Symphony Orchestras long struggle with unionism dates back to the end of the 19th century The BSO was organized by Henry Lee Higginson, who was wealthy at birth and who preferred to be its sole benefactor. During his 40-year association with the orchestra, he personally underwrote seasonal deficits amounting to nearly $1 million, an immense sum even today for a single enthusiast to bear.

By 1900, all of the major symphonies in the United States had become affiliated with the American Federation of Musicians, except for the Boston Orchestra. Higginson hated unions and would unilaterally raise wages and introduce benefits to discourage unionism. One example was the orchestra pension plan he installed in 1903. Undaunted, many members of the orchestra by 1904 had joined Boston Local 9. Higginson, hearing of the members' union affiliation, threatened to disband the orchestra if the union attempted to organize. The orchestra members promptly resigned from the union.

Tensions between the players, management, and the union continued unabated through the 1930s, with successive management representatives and benefactors repeating their threats of closure if unionism spread into the orchestra. In the weeks prior to the 1918-1919 season, a revolt by the players nearly succeeded in organizing the orchestra. Management thwarted the attempt by awarding the musicians a $250 bonus. That action ended the organizing effort.

Managements attitude in adamantly opposing the union served to maintain an inferior economic position for BSO members, compared to players in other major orchestras. Weekly pay was less in the Boston Orchestra, and workweek and workday hours were irregular, unlike union orchestras. Union contracts also provided better pay for extra services and better pay for recordings. BSO management argued that additional seasonal work from pops and festival engagements served to offset the lower service rates.

Two weeks after his election as AFM president in 1940, James C. Petrillo launched an aggressive effort to organize the Boston Orchestra. Instead of conducting another bottom-up campaign, like the efforts in Boston that had failed in the past, he developed a top-down approach. He reasoned that by assisting in the creation of seasonal deficits that could not be reasonably sustained, he could change the nonunion minds of the BSO board.

Petrillo's plan for organizing the orchestra was arranged to apply economic pressure in four distinct ways. First, Petrillo demanded the removal of the Boston Orchestra from radio. He threatened to pull AFM musicians from local and network broadcasts if the nonunion BSO continued to be aired. The radio industry quickly obliged. …

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