(John Michael Smith’s address to the 2016 ICSOM Conference, Washington, DC)
I’d like to thank ICSOM for the opportunity to address the 2016 annual conference in our nation’s capitol. This is my first official duty as President of ROPA since I was elected at our annual conference in Madison, Wisconsin a month ago.
For the past 36 years I have performed as a bassist with the Minnesota Opera Orchestra, first as a section player, and since 2000 as Principal Double Bass.
Outgoing ICSOM Chair Bruce Ridge and I have shared a common origin: we both attended the same high school, Kempsville High School in Virginia Beach, Virginia. In fact, in recent years our mothers even lived in nearly identical adjacent condo buildings near the Kempsville Greens Golf Course, and even had the same unit number and location in their respective buildings!
My first professional orchestra experience was with the Norfolk Symphony, which is now the Virginia Symphony. This was also true for Bruce. My first professional audition was for the North Carolina Symphony, Bruce’s current orchestra.
I became a member of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra in 1976, when I had moved to Columbus, Ohio to enter graduate school at Ohio State. One of my colleagues in Columbus was a violinist named Chris Durham, who is now an SSD negotiator. Chris, Nathan Kahn, and others were founders of ROPA in 1984 in Columbus.
I moved to St. Paul when my wife accepted the position as 2nd bassoonist with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in 1980. In addition to the Minnesota Opera Orchestra, I have performed, recorded, and toured with both the SPCO and Minnesota Orchestra as a substitute and extra musician, and have been an active free-lancer in a variety of ensembles and types of music.
While in Columbus I began my training in string instrument repair at The Loft Violin Shop, and furthered my knowledge through the Violin Society of America’s Oberlin Violin Restoration Workshops. For the past 35 years I have operated my own shop, John Michael Smith, Luthier – which is my day job!
I have been elected to serve on my orchestra’s players committees and negotiating committees since 1990, when we signed the first CBA negotiated with a musician member committee and the Local. I have served on every negotiating committee since that time, and will be working again on our next negotiations in 2017.
Speaking of negotiations, I have had the experience of when things don’t go right. The Minnesota Opera Orchestra went on strike in 1993 as a result of an alliance with the SPCO, Minnesota Opera, and Ordway Theatre to save the SPCO, which was in financial crisis. The end game was the elimination of the Opera Orchestra, and the SPCO becoming the “house orchestra” of the Ordway Theatre, and consolidating the administration of the three organizations. It was a perfect storm of expiring CBAs and the managements coming to the conclusion that our orchestra was expendable. With Local 30-73 standing with ALL musicians, the SPCO musicians supporting and standing with the musicians of the Opera, valuable strike organization help from Rosemary Estes of SSD, Local 30-73 President Brad Eggen, Liza DeBrul, counsel for the SPCO musicians, and the negotiating committees of both orchestras, we were able to turn the tide, dissolve the alliance, and return to the bargaining table. An agreement was finally reached where the Minnesota Opera Orchestra became a standing orchestra of named employee musicians.
This was the first time I became aware of ROPA. I was contacted by Andrew Brandt, the editor of The Leading Tone, for an article about the combined forces of two orchestras negotiating with three managements. It was at this time that I became aware that there was special help and support available from an organization of orchestras similar to ours, and addressing our special needs.
We are stronger together!
More recently, I also happened to be at and near ground zero through the two lockouts in the Twin Cities: the 7-month lockout of the SPCO and the 15-month lockout of the Minnesota Orchestra. My wife was the chair of the negotiating committee for the SPCO; that battle was painfully fought every day in our home, the media, and on the streets of St. Paul, as it was across the river in Minneapolis. My colleagues of the SPCO, Minnesota Orchestra, Minnesota Opera, and many others stood together through leafleting, being a presence in front of concert halls and orchestra offices throughout these hard times, sometimes in the bitter cold and snow of the Minnesota winter. We stood with Musician support groups for both the SPCO and Minnesota Orchestra, attended and performed in self-produced orchestra concerts by both ensembles, and stood beside each other in many rallies that were held throughout these troubled times.
We are stronger together!
I attended my first ROPA Conference in San Francisco in 2007, as an alternate delegate. I became the Delegate for Minnesota Opera Orchestra in 2008, and continued to serve in that role into 2013. I was elected to the ROPA Executive Board as a MAL in 2011, and begin serving as the MAL for the Pit Orchestras, which today numbers 18 orchestras. I also began serving on the ROPA Electronic Media Committee in 2011, and became Chair in 2013, succeeding Paul Austin. I have also served as the Conference Host for the 2012 ROPA Conference in Minneapolis.
As ROPA Electronic Media Chair, I served as a member of the negotiating team along with the ICSOM Electronic Media Committee members during the negotiations of the 2nd IMA beginning in the fall of 2013 through January of 2015. I found this to be a very collaborative and unified team of AFM, ROPA, and ICSOM.
We are stronger together!
ROPA is now 32 years old, and is a growing organization, currently with 87 member orchestras with budgets between $546,000 (Hudson Valley Philharmonic) to over $40 million (LA Opera). We recently welcomed two new orchestras: the Boston Ballet Orchestra and the Annapolis Symphony, and have a couple more waiting in the wings.
Our annual conference is typically an information-packed event, with social events included on most evenings. The Madison Conference included a Union Solidarity Sing-Along at the Wisconsin State Capitol, a weekly event in support of Unionism in a less-than-supportive-of-unions state government. It also included attending the weekly outdoor Concert on the Square by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, which weekly draws over 30,000 in attendance.
There was a special reception in honor of Nathan Kahn’s retirement from Symphonic Services Division of the AFM. Nathan was the first President of ROPA, and his service, devotion, and presence was acknowledged and highlighted throughout the Madison Conference.
Overall, we are observing a relative calm in a majority of our orchestras, with negotiations generally going a little more smoothly and fewer orchestras having to accept cuts. Most recent negotiations with our orchestras are experiencing modest increases. And it’s not to say that everything is perfect in all of our orchestras (there are still challenges), but ROPA and its members are there to offer assistance, and support, as stated in ROPA’s Guiding Principles:
- ROPA is a place for our member orchestras to turn for support;
- ROPA establishes a forum for our member orchestras to discuss concerns and to educate orchestras on current trends and solutions;
- ROPA provides assistance for orchestras in crisis with advice and contact information;
- ROPA works to create fair collective bargaining agreements, fair working conditions and fair compensation.
I am succeeding Carla Lehmeier-Tatum as President of ROPA. She has served 9 years as the head of our player’s conference, the longest serving President of ROPA. Her leadership and impact in ROPA and the Players Conferences has been huge. I have big shoes to fill; but the message still goes on:
We are stronger together!
About John Michael Smith