Proposed Collective Bargaining Oversight Over All Arts Organizations in the State

Washington state HB1276 and SHB1276 are titled “An Act Relating to placing symphony orchestras, operas, performing arts theaters, and other entertainment-based organizations under the jurisdiction of the public employment relations commission for purposes of collective bargaining…”, the issue is when an arts organization/employer comes under the jurisdiction of collective bargaining labor law. Federal law sets the bar for organizations at one million dollars gross annual revenue for federal oversight by the National Labor Relations Board and protection of organizing and collective bargaining of employees. This bill seeks to lower this amount in Washington State, in effect bringing many more and smaller arts organizations under possible collective bargaining. On the one hand this seems to be a pro-labor bill, but on the other hand it puts a greater burden on small, emerging, and community arts organizations in these trying economic times to come up to ‘professional’ standards.

This bill has been in the works for several years, fronted by AFM local 76, which tried to organize Civic Light Opera and recently organized the Bellevue Philharmonic. The Local has been holding out for a zero dollar budget threshold. The Washington State Arts Alliance, an arts advocacy organization representing a wide coalition of arts organizations has been seeking a middle ground in this issue, preferring possible budget thresholds of between $250,000 to $400,000. The current legislation, reintroduced on January 11th and sent to house Labor and Commerce, includes a $150,000 threshold.

The real question is when does an arts organization become ‘Professional’? Should community orchestras and theater groups with small budgets whose goal is to provide their community and their members with non-professional opportunities in the arts be held to the same standards under labor law as the Seattle Symphony or the Fifth Avenue theater?

Community orchestras and theaters provide unique opportunities to both lay people actively interested in the arts and to emerging students seeking to gain experience. They are also prime resources in building an appreciation and support for the arts in both small and large communities. The climate and spirit of these organizations is vastly different from their professional counterparts. Often they exist because of the passion they bring to their members and their audiences, and many are not seeking to grow past their community roots. Indeed the most dangerous time for any such organization is when it seeks to become ‘professional’. But this is a step they should collectively decide on, not one they should be forced into. There are doubtless arts organizations that should be organized by labor as they grow, but a blanket approach could seriously damage the resolve of many small groups in following their mission. The fear is that many small groups could decide that things are simply getting too complicated for them to continue. It takes a lot of resources for an organization to take this step, bargain, institute working conditions, wages, personnel procedures, possible benefits etc. not to mention that many of their members are not interested in these things and consider their organizations more of a club or a hobby than a profession, much less a job.

A broad zero tolerance approach could seriously damage the ability and resolve of many small and community arts organizations to survive and weaken the strong foundation and educational underpinning to the true ’professional’ arts community that they currently provide. It would seem that some middle ground is indeed needed in this issue.