It is absolutely true that when income falls precipitously, as it has for many arts organizations, costs must be realigned. And it is also true that unions, in protecting their workers, fight tooth and nail to maintain their members' standard of living and work environment. That is why there are unions in the first place.There sure has been a disturbing amount of union-bashing in the last year or so. Not that one isn't allowed to disagree with specific unions' actions or policies, mind you--these are fallible institutions seeking their constituents' interests like any other, and any specific case will have multiple perspectives. What's distressing are the kneejerk suggestions that have nothing to do with a specific case but just generally assume collective bargaining practices are incompatible with economic reality.
But the key issue is: why has revenue fallen so far for so many arts organizations?
It is not the fault of union members that we are selling fewer tickets or raising less funds. We can blame a terrible economy, lack of arts education in our schools, substantially lower government grants at every level and new forms of entertainment that compete for the time and resources of our audiences for much of the reduction in resources available for arts organizations. A recent study, for example, found that contributions for the arts fell much farther during the recession than had previously been expected.
The implication here is that union workers have been able to extract, and refuse to give up, salaries so unreasonable that they are a major impediment to institutions' financial health. Hence all the unseemly public dissection of middle and upper-middle class incomes and pundit handwringing over whether some other citizen "deserves" their morsel, a frequent note in the debate around public employees in Wisconsin as well as the orchestra performers in Detroit.
But this is just acquiescing to what anti-labor conservatives would have us believe: that workers are are entitled to no more than how the "market" prices their labor. This may sound good in econ 101, but in the real world negotiations do a much better job of ensuring workers get their fair share. Amidst capricious labor markets, stagnant wages, and persistent unemployment, its a bit alarming that so many are ready to believe unions have outlived their usefulness.