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Tom Baxter

Two lockouts and one question: What were they thinking?

By Tom Baxter

Last week two lockouts came to an end. While there was a sense of relief in both cases, the two episodes ended very differently.

The National Football League officials’ lockout concluded with what must be the first standing ovation in the history of professional sports saluting not the players but the refs, as the completely vindicated regular NFL officials took the field for last Thursday night’s Cleveland Browns-Baltimore Ravens game.

The lovefest continued through the weekend, with the television announcers in the Atlanta Falcons-Carolina Panthers game remarking on every good call as if it were a Matt Ryan pass. Not even an eerie repeat of fortunes for the Green Bay Packers, victims of the botched call which was the last straw in the league’s attempt to stiff the regular officials, could dampen the national sense of relief that adults were again in charge of the playing field. This time the Packers won anyway, despite the bad call.

The football officials had the great advantage in this struggle of being completely unappreciated by the public until precisely when their skills were required before a national audience. It’s a pity that in the lockout of the musicians of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra there was nothing similar to the Monday night call that denied the Packers a victory, some grand SQUOWNK moment in the middle of a great work that could have underscored the true implications of their absence.

There were a lot of sour notes in this lockout, but none of them were ever heard on stage. The musicians, who had already agreed to $4 million in cuts over two years and gone for a month without pay or medical benefits, gave in to the management demand for $5.2 million in cuts over the same period. Five top managers accepted salary cuts, a token concession to the players’ complaint that the administrative side of the ASO operation has grown bloated and overpaid. The orchestra will be reduced from 95 players to 88, while the administrative staff will remain at 74.

“When the ASO was last the size and season length it is being reduced to now, the administration staff was smaller than 15. The musicians are not, and have never been, the cause of financial problems at the ASO, and in light of these agonizing cuts cannot be cited as such in the future,” the musicians’ union said in a press release announcing its surrender in the month-long battle.

Though they ended differently, the question in the case of both the NFL officials and the ASO musicians is why anyone thought a lockout was a good idea in the first place. The NFL chose to take on the officials at a time when it faces much more serious long-term concerns, and lost in humiliating fashion. The officials didn’t get everything, but they got an eight-year contract, a healthy raise and probably the best pension deal they could have made. The league got a black eye.

The ASO management won its fight with the symphony players, but at a cost of well over $1.2 million in community good will. If the lockout causes an exodus of key players and a general decline in the quality of the orchestra, the costs will rise much higher. In neither case was there enough at stake to justify the risks involved in precipitating a public dispute.

Both lockouts could be looked on as part of a larger, ongoing war which is no longer simply between management and labor, but increasingly between administration and expertise. It is in no respect a one-sided conflict. Expertise, whether on a shop floor or a television newsroom, is essential to the quality of a product. On the other hand, the rapidly changing economy has made some skills outmoded and eroded the value of others. A worsening economic climate can create resentment of experts and elites, as some of the blog entries related to the symphony lockout illustrate.

But football games and orchestra concerts are about expertise, and that’s what the management in both these situations seems to have gotten fundamentally wrong. The NFL executives reasoned that there were a few bad calls every Sunday, so the fans wouldn’t be agitated over a few more. The ASO management was willing to cancel the October portion of its season if the players hadn’t backed down.

In both cases, that was gambling against the public’s interest in the quality of their product, which in the long run can’t be a wise business strategy.


Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.



  1. FedUpReader October 1, 2012 5:56 pm

    Please tell me you aren’t comparing the ASO to the NFL!!!!  The NFL is nearly a $10 billion enterprise, with season ticket sales in the stratosphere.  The number of people that go see the ASO would fit into a school lunchroom.  When you can change the attendance “problem” you will have solved the salary “problem”.  The ASO plays to a very tiny niche, and little is going to change that.  If that makes all of us knuckle-draggers, so be it.Report

  2. Classical music buff October 1, 2012 9:06 pm

    Hey there FedUpReader, I think I am fed up myself listening to people equate sports to music. The point is, I believe you missed the point of this article, which was equating EXPERTISE, of 2 entirely different professions, not number of fans each has. Had you actually been a classical music subscriber and attended ASO or other symphony orchestra concerts, you would see that the average m
    usic hall seats a maximum of 2000- 2500, while the GA Dome seats, what, 70,000? The reason for seating so many fewer is so that people can hear what these amazing instruments of the orchestra sound like without modern amplification, in other words how they sound ACOUSTICALLY. It’s a question of quality, not quantity. You should not be responding to this article if you have no interest or knowledge of how both professions manage and promote the experts who are at the top of their respective fields. By the way, do you realize that the ASO has garnered 28 Grammy Awards? If you live in Atlanta, you should be ashamed of yourself if you are not proud of this home- grown orchestra which represents our city to the world.Report

  3. Linda October 1, 2012 10:03 pm

    “If that makes all of us knuckle-draggers, so be it.”  Sadly, I think there is a deeper truth behind this comment.  Knowledge and understanding of music has been dumbed down to beat and volume, and perhaps a provocative costume or strobe lights.  We’ve mixed up “art” with “entertainment” and see it as expendable and frivolous. Music education has dwindled, folks are musically illiterate and are satisfied with “easy readers.”  It is as if people were to say, Dr. Suess is enough, who needs Shakespeare?  It is hard to explain the value of art.  Because it is hard to explain, it is easily ignored.  Only after it’s gone, will we realize the hole it has left. Report

  4. Guest October 1, 2012 10:55 pm

    I find the comparison valid between the two lock-outs. Both musicians and referees are represented by their unions, perform at the pinnacle of their profession and have a skill set that is not transferable out of a narrow niche workplace, i.e. professional orchestras or NFL games. The NFL referees were willing to stay off the job and willing to let their audience experience the game without their expertise. We all know the outcome of that strategy. The ASO musicians were not willing to let the season be canceled, nor allow a situation to occur where the management could have hired replacement players. Would the “fans” have noticed a dramatic decline in the expertise like the NFL experienced? Thanks to the concessions that were accepted, we’ll not know the answer. Report

  5. SWK October 2, 2012 9:44 am

    Despite the glowing press releases that ASO Management issues on its own behalf, the story from the trenches is as bad as it can be.  The class act in this travesty has always been the orchestra:  musicians responded to their management’s threat to their livelihoods with 2 free community concerts, a ‘rent party’ concert at Eddie’s Attic that was so amazing, we’re still talking about it.  The free concerts will number 4, if you count that ‘diversity’ debacle, which was also perpetrated by ASO Management.  ASO musicians were so dismayed by their management’s ham-fisted intrusion into their education program that the players offered free concerts.  Who does that?  Powell gets it exactly right.  Players are about expertise, reaching their fans … and for the orchestra, above all, it is staying connected the community in which they live and work.  The players take this commitment very seriously … and what they had to go through to get back onstage amounts to abuse.  Report

  6. Burroughston Broch October 2, 2012 11:51 am

    Most ASO patrons see part of the problem as we attend performances. We thumb through the program and come to the page where the ASO staff is listed. We count them and know they are all paid. We then look on websites of other peers, such as the Philadelphia Orchestra, with substantially less staff on the payroll but managing to get the job done. And we wonder why the ASO cannot do the same.
    As Herman Cain says, “We are not stupid.”Report


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