Right about now you could hear a pin drop on the floor at the Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre.

About three weeks ago, members of the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra quietly decided to be represented by the musician’s union in a razor-tight 56-50 vote. It’s a major change for an orchestra entering its 15th season. But orchestra members are largely silent about the vote, at least in public. Few of the group’s 220 musicians will discuss the move, and even those who weren’t pleased with the decision refuse to let their names be known. And unlike most other unions, which openly and loudly voice their concerns and complaints, the mousy Central Florida Musicians Association Local 389 doesn’t want to rock the boat.

“It is our duty to protect the integrity of the people we represent and the Orlando Philharmonic,” says Mike Avila, the local’s president and a trumpeter with the philharmonic.”

More than that, the orchestra has a reputation to protect. Though finances have been solid, a tarnished reputation could scare off subscribers. The nonprofit organization has a projected budget of $3.1 million for the current season; last season’s budget totaled $3 million. There’s a new performing arts center on the horizon, if the city can get past the recent Florida Supreme Court decision that seems to say that cities can’t use property tax revenue to finance long-term bonds without a referendum, putting $160 million for the arts center and the Citrus Bowl in jeopardy. This remains a critical time for the arts.

Still, the silence is puzzling – until you realize that the last time a group of musicians unionized in Orlando, they were swiftly out of jobs.

Unionization didn’t work out for the Florida Symphony Orchestra, which disbanded in 1993 shortly after the organization was unionized. The FSO hemorrhaged money: It lost $1 million in funding from United Arts of Central Florida when it failed to raise its share of a fund-raising campaign goal. Concert attendance plummeted after a four-month musicians strike, which ended in early 1992. FSO’s typical audiences of 1,400 patrons at the Carr Performing Arts Centre shrank to 800; the musicians’ morale took a massive hit, and the symphony’s public image took a beating.

At the end of the third month the strike ended, and the organization filed for bankruptcy protection and began making plans to dissolve.

A round of urgent fund-raising managed to pull together $1 million, enough to postpone the symphony’s death for a bit. But in 1993, after 43 years, the FSO went silent.

“Are they doomed for a repeat? I can’t say,” says an Orlando Philharmonic member, who asked not to be identified. “The last orchestra fell apart because of the union. We don’t want that, and we also don’t want to alienate subscribers like what happened last time.”

That player says a group of members began rallying to unionize, mostly in an effort to secure pensions and ensure members have wage-bargaining opportunities. No one involved in the decision was willing to discuss whether pensions and wages alone prompted the change.

Jennie Rudberg, a violinist for the orchestra, says she had strong feelings against the change, but thinks everything will work out.

“I’m not one that voted for it, but I’m going to be positive,” Rudberg says. “It’s very important not to lose subscribers over this for the sake of the Phil.”

Since the debacle in the ’90s, the Orlando Philharmonic has steadily increased its audience, now averaging 1,800 patrons at flagship shows such as the Phil at Carr Series.

Following the vote to unionize, executive director David Schillhammer released a statement saying the move would have no impact on the mission and values of the organization.

“There really is no news to report,” says Schillhammer, who says he can’t discuss how unionizing came up and why members were split over the decision.

The 83-year-old Orlando musicians’ local has about 750 members and covers another 250 who work under union agreements. Currently the orchestra has 220 members, though only 115 were eligible to vote, based on their activity with the orchestra.

Nationally, if Orlando wants to hold its own with a large orchestra, this is the way to go, says Laura Brownell, director of symphonic services for the American Federation of Musicians, the umbrella organization of Orlando’s local.

Only recently did Orlando’s orchestra grow enough to fall into that category, which is generally defined as orchestras with revenue in excess of $3 million, Brownell says.

“We are virtually 100 percent union among major professional orchestras,” she says. “They’re like most workers. First and foremost they’re looking at wages and benefits; they’re looking at coordinating so they can put bread and butter on the table and pay mortgages just like everybody else. It makes music a viable career option.”

Many orchestras join primarily for the health insurance benefits and pensions, which are top-notch, Brownell says.

“It’s definitely a little tougher in Florida. They took a hit when the Florida Orchestra folded,” she says. “It left a number of small orchestras coming and going and because of that, that whole area struggles to maintain union standing.”

More by Deanna Sheffield


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