Vermont Symphony Orchestra Unionizes | Live Culture

Vermont Symphony Orchestra Unionizes


  • Courtesy of Vermont Symphony Orchestra
  • Vermont Symphony Orchestra
On January 25, the Vermont Symphony Orchestra voted to unionize. The Boston Musicians Association, which is the Boston local of the American Federation of Musicians, will represent the orchestra. In negotiations, the VSO will be collaboratively represented by BMA and the Greater Springfield, Berkshire County and Vermont Musicians Association — the geographically nearest AFM local, in Springfield, Mass.

The move is a little belated by orchestra-world standards. The country’s top 60 orchestras had all organized by the 2008 recession. Since then a majority of regional orchestras have also unionized.

The BMA already represents a number of orchestras that range from the salaried Boston Symphony Orchestra to smaller, per-service orchestras — whose musicians are paid per concert — such as Portland Symphony in Maine and Cape Symphony in Cape Cod, Mass. The latter two are comparable in size to the VSO, which is also per-service.

“This industry is really highly under union umbrellas,” said BMA vice president Bob Couture.

According to Couture, the VSO needed a 51 percent vote to unionize but the tally came in much higher: 59 in favor and 10 against.

The VSO’s musicians committee initiated the vote and will decide which issues are to be addressed in a first contract. The committee consists of chair and principal oboist Nancy Dimock, violinist Hilary Hatch, second flutist Anne Janson, principal horn player Sheleigh Abate and principal trumpet player Mark Emery. Of the five, only Hatch, of Leicester, and Janson, of Ferrisburgh, live in Vermont. The others live in Massachusetts or New York.

In fact, about half of the VSO’s players live outside Vermont — a result of the orchestra’s policy of holding widely advertised auditions, according to executive director Ben Cadwallader. Many are union members through their other jobs.

Why hadn’t the VSO unionized before? Seven Days spoke to several musicians who noted that there was already good communication between the musicians and the management and board.

Violist Ana Ruesink cited longtime orchestra manager Eleanor Long’s tireless behind-the-scenes work in particular. “She’s management, but she’s always looking out for the musicians," said Ruesink. "She’s an amazing advocate.”

Boston-based Gabriel Langfur, the VSO’s bass trombone player, agreed. “We didn’t do this out of a sense that we’re not being treated well,” said Langfur, who has also served on the BMA’s board of directors for the past four years. In fact, he added, “We have had a way of doing things — a personnel policies and procedures document — that is very similar to a union contract.”

Langfur continued, “The way I see this decision is that a big part of it is we’re joining that larger community [of unionized orchestras] and accessing its resources. Another part is education — what’s comparable at other orchestras, but also what is unique to the VSO.”

The latter includes “a feeling of family” shared by VSO musicians and a sense, felt by out-of-state members, that the orchestra is their “second home,” according to Langfur

What may have tipped the scales, however, was the decision by Cadwallader and the board to cut one of this season’s traditional five Masterworks concerts. Historically, the December Masterworks has never done well because it competes with the VSO’s Holiday Pops concert as well as holiday offerings around the region.

That was “hard,” said Langfur of the cut, “even though we understood the objective necessity of it.” The fifth Masterworks concert will return next season in a different time slot.

Cadwallader says he regrets not involving the musicians in that discussion. “I learned a lesson,” he said.  At the same time, the director is not surprised that the musicians opted to organize.

“Unionization and a music-director change — those are the two things I knew would happen [during my tenure],” Cadwallader explained. Any formal process of auditioning potential replacements for current music director Jaime Laredo is still years away.

While the union is likely to negotiate such issues as pay scale and working conditions, Cadwallader is less worried about “money and budget” than “agility.” What concerns him, he said, is “our ability to jump on opportunities." For example, he cited the VSO's July 21 performance with Guster as part of this summer's Ben & Jerry's Concerts on the Green series at the Shelburne Museum and its Jukebox series of small-ensemble concerts at ArtsRiot in Burlington. "These things come up very quickly.”

Cadwallader also insisted that conflicts such as strikes are not a worry.

“Folding orchestras, freezing salaries — it’s not happening as much as it was in the years after the recession," he said. He added, "Overall, there is a spirit of recovery” in the orchestra world. However, in September 2016, the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and Philadelphia Orchestra all went on strike.

Still, Langfur said it’s a good time to unionize because it’s “a time of changes” at the VSO.

“Ben was hired [in 2015], the board seems to be taking a more active role, they’re making targeted changes to how the VSO is going to grow," said the trombonist. "We just wanted to have an effective voice in that process."

Said Cadwallader, ultimately the VSO management, board and musicians “all want the same thing: to build a cherished, radiant artistic institution that outlives us.”