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Lock Out VSO 85by Stephen Wilkes (from Vancouver Symphony Orchestra: Strike, Lockout and Suspension of Operations) View the full article

At the start of the 1985-86 season, amid tense negotiations, Vancouver Symphony musicians were told to report to the concert hall with their instruments and to be prepared to rehearse the first programme of the new season without a contract. Upon arrival, the entrance area was flooded with every media type and TV cameras from Vancouver and even some US cities. As the orchestra members arrived, they were told to go upstairs to a meeting room for a vote. 

As everyone was assembled, the musicians’ attorney announced that an offer from the management would be put in motion for a vote. “However, I must tell you that I do not advise you to accept this agreement,” he said. “There is a possibility that you may be locked out.” The orchestra voted to reject the offer, and the lawyer left for his discussion with the Vancouver Symphony Society (VSS) negotiating team.

When the attorney returned, he informed the musicians that the VSS had indeed declared the orchestra to be locked out. 

“Do you get that?” he asked. “You are locked out - but you’re in! Would you be prepared to sit in your places and be ready to play? If asked by a peace officer, would you leave promptly and quietly?”

As light travels, so did the musicians scramble down the stairs to their chairs on stage. 

“Why are you here? You are locked out,” said the VSS chief negotiator. 

“We’re willing to play and talk,” answered the musicians. 

“Yeah, why don’t you let them play?” chimed the media: clicking, recording, videotaping.

The GM left in a huff. 

Then, suddenly, complete darkness.

Cameras, video cameras, flash bulbs popping non-stop and the media, all of them, for the sake of balanced reporting, still chirping at the VSS GM, though he had left for his office in the Society’s enclave below the public theatre entrance. 

The next day’s headlines: “Lights out on the Symphony.”

The VSS never had a chance to address its views to the public or to state its case in any form. The public just retained the image of a blackened stage on the newspapers and TV screens. They could not match the tactics, skill, and connections of the VMA/VSO attorney, who later became a Justice in the Supreme Court of British Columbia. 

The lockout lasted eight days, then the two sides made peace — not the everlasting kind, but that of a utilitarian practicality that concealed the pettiness and rancor yet to emerge. The musicians had won the dispute, but to what end remained uncertain.

Stephen Wilkes is OCSM Secretary Emeritus, having served from 1989 to 1999. He was Assistant Principal Viola of the Vancouver Symphony, and a member of that orchestra for over 50 years.