ACSO Guest Blog: Six Key Steps for a Successful (and Joyful) CBA Negotiation Process

Create the Possibility for the Organizational Impact You Really Want

By Kathryn R MartinPresident & CEO, Santa Barbara Symphony 

During COVID, the Santa Barbara Symphony created innovative paths forward that could only have been created collaboratively with the musicians (and the venue). In Spring 2023, in the midst of a multi-year financial turn-around, with echoes of mistrust and misinformation from the previous administration, and with a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) set to expire on June 30thwe drew upon this collaborative process when we went to the table to negotiate a new contract with our musiciansI learned a lot.

“We thank the management and staff of the Santa Barbara Symphony Association for engaging in a cordial and expeditious negotiation for the new contract. 
The cooperation, respect, and communication between management, the board, the players’ committee, and the Union should be a model for others to follow.

-Neil Garber, President, Local 308, American Federation of Musicians


In addition to assembling the standard resources of legal counsel, benchmarking, clear goals, an agreed-upon process, and clear financial models, these six steps for a successful (and joyful) CBA negotiation process may help you move your organization forward to create the impact that you really want:

  1. Start with the truth(s).
    Here’s the deal: Your musicians want your organization to thrive, and they literally make your impact as a 501(c)3 possible. They want to be able to do their best, and many factors that you are in control of contribute to them being able to do that (wages, rehearsal schedules, string counts, travel, accommodations, meals, stage set up, hall acoustics, and more). They are not our adversaries. While most are not experts in the business side of managing a professional symphony orchestra, many of them have experience managing chamber music series, running thriving businesses, have leadership roles in academic institutions, or work in other orchestras - and they may offer ideas and solutions to solve the challenges symphony orchestras face.

  1. Begin your (future) negotiation process…TODAY.
    As author and educator Stephen Covey suggests, “Begin with the end in mind.” If you want to create future CBA terms to move your organization forward, then create a blueprint for what actions you can mindfully take today to collaboratively create that possibility with your musicians. Some examples: 

  • Invite the Orchestra Committee chair to attend all Board meetings as a non-voting orchestra liaison, thus receiving the same information as board and staff. When you’re at the negotiating table it's critical for the musicians to have the same financial context that you have. 

  • Hold regular meetings year-round with the Orchestra Committee. Check in, ask for help, share challenges, and then brainstorm solutions.  

  • Provide regular management updates to the full orchestra (email from CEO, brief rehearsal welcomes, etc.). 

  • Throughout the year(s), keep a running list of the problems/solutions you and the Orchestra Committee tackle in real-time, and those you want to address in the next negotiation.  

  • Calendar the negotiation timelines well in advance, and link the anticipated completion date to an occasion where you all envision celebrating the CBA being announced (a closing concert, annual meeting, press release, end of year musicians party, etc.). 

  1. Test your own assumptions about what (really) is and is not possible financially.
    Musicians fees and related costs are a line in your budget. Your normal and successful ways of managing your budget and careful growth may need to adjust, depending on your “assumptions” about this particular and complex expense line. There are many variables and contributors to creating the right path forward for your orchestra.  

Questions to help you and your board determine how much to invest: 

  • QUESTION: What are your organization’s Impact Goals for the next three years (longer than that can get too theoretical)Don’t skip this step! 
    Impact Goals are the “so that” of what and why we do what we do. An Impact Goal is not that we’re going to increase audiences, performances, or create a new initiative. It's what happens to others when we do those things.
    For example, two of our Impact Goals in Santa Barbara are: 

    • Our audiences and donors will feel a loyal connection to the Symphony; thereby subscribing and donating at increased levels. 
    • New, diverse, younger audiences will feel welcome, return, and be engaged ambassadors. 
  • QUESTION: If the musicians help you achieve your organization’s Impact Goals, what will the VALUE be to you?
    Therefore, how much do you want to invest to achieve the transformational “return” (impact) you seek? Is the ROI so significant that it mitigates the impression of risk?

  • Only then - with that critical context - make a list of what your organization needs from its musicians (and CBA) to create the possibility for achieving your Impact Goals. Then brainstorm with the musicians all the ways to achieve those outcomes. For example, in Santa Barbara, we knew we needed our musicians to: 
    • Perform together at a consistently high level (Solutions could come from string counts, rehearsal schedules, auditions, travel, accommodations, fees, stage set up, backstage food and other factors to make Santa Barbara Symphony attractive to them.) 
    • Build relationships/connection with audiences (Solutions could be doing meet & greets, talking from the stage, video profiles, social media.) 
    • Share our commitment to organizational diversity, equity, and inclusion (Solutions could be manifested through auditions, subs, call lists, fellowships, repertoire, etc.)

      Music Director Nir Kabaretti, orchestra musicians, and Santa Barbara Opera soloists stand for applause at the January 20, 2024 Santa Barbara Symphony concert The Ride of the Valkyries: Opera at the Symphony.
      Photo by Sarah Weber.

  1. Look inward. 
    Every human at the negotiation table has emotional “triggers” or “voices in our head” that can hide in plain sight and inadvertently impact our individual beliefs about others and influence our approaches. If we incorrectly reduce the CBA process to being about financial terms, feelings can get hurt and damage can be done.  

Examples of these common internal voices and assumptions about others include: 

They don’t understand!  
They don’t value me! 
They don’t care about me! 
As a good negotiator, I’m supposed to: 
Keep expenses down.” 
Not be a pushover.” 

When these pesky voices appear in your head, I invite you to notice and test your assumptions. Assume that the people sitting across the table from you may also be hearing these voices, and that your mindful statements and actions can show them otherwise. When we’re triggered, we’re reacting to something that occurred in our past that the current situation reminds us of. Stay in the present moment and focus on solutions that benefit all. 

  1. Get to the heart of things.
    Once you’re in negotiations - and assuming you’ve done Steps 1- 4 - you’re now ready to…listen. 

  • Listen to the requests. Categorize them (financial/non-financial, etc.). 

  • Consider their requests as solutions to something…and then find out what. Ask them to articulate the root of the problem that they want to be solved. Often, this helps to reveal that both sides agree on the problem, and then can look at multiple solutions - some may be more affordable than you think! In Santa Barbara, a request for increased string counts was, in part, coming from a desire to feel less exposed. To sound better. We all want that, and so we are moving the orchestra forward in the hall, losing a couple rows of seats, so the orchestra can perform where the acousticians had originally meant for the orchestra to be.

  1. Have fun. Express gratitude. It's about the journey as much as the destination. 
    More than ever before, our communities need the impact a symphony orchestra brings. Musicians, Staff, and Board members are dedicating their lives to creating moments of awe, joy, connection, and goosebumps. We are on the same team, and for this to work, we need to (and get to) work with each other. Look for the moments to celebrate and thank each other!  



 About the Author: Kathryn Martin is President & CEO of the Santa Barbara Symphony, and a Next Chapter Coach & founder of The Career (Life!) Breakthrough Academy. As one of this country’s top professional Interim CEO’s and transition strategists for nonprofit arts organizations, Kathryn is a respected resource on revenue-generation, community engagement and collaboration, has led ten arts organizations through turnarounds as an Interim CEO, and has supervised, trained, and coached interim leaders across the United States. Bottom line: Kathryn is a catalyst for moments of transformational shift and breakthroughs - whether leading a symphony or coaching leaders to align their professional brand and compensation with their true value, unlock their purpose, and cultivate impact.  

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About ACSO's Guest Blog Series: Our community is full of incredible people with a wealth of life experiences, talents, and diverse perspectives and backgrounds. We want to share their insights, points of view, and wisdom with all of you, as well as raise the voices of individuals who are making a difference for the orchestra field. Our guest blog series features people from different communities throughout California and the western US, from different sizes and types of music organizations, and with different jobs and responsibilities. They share what they have learned, express their thoughts about the sector, and ask challenging questions that will help us shift our thinking and be better advocates for this art form that we all love. If you want to be a guest blog author, email us at [email protected].

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