Opera-goers were leafleted on the plight of Louisville Orchestra musicians. The musicians were absent during the Kentucky Opera's production of Mozart's "Figaro" at the Brown Theater over the weekend. (Photos by Brian Tucker for Insider Louisville.)

Labor activists and musicians from the Louisville Orchestra handed out leaflets in front of the Brown Theater in downtown Louisville last weekend in an effort to educate patrons of the Kentucky Opera on the ongoing dispute between orchestra management and the musicians.

The Kentucky Opera attempted to stage a production of Mozart’s “Figaro” this past weekend without the orchestra, opting instead to use what the musicians termed as “rehearsal pianists”.

Until the group collapsed into bankruptcy, musicians with the Louisville Orchestra provided music for the Louisville Ballet and the Kentucky Opera.

“Ludicrous….” said one opera-goer. “Who in the world has ever heard of an opera without an orchestra?”

Enter James U. Smith III.

Anti-labor attorney and infamous union-buster James U. Smith III  joined Louisville Orchestra management in a concerted effort to replace musicians and their contract while denying unemployment benefits under the assertion that the musicians are “on strike,” a charge the players deny.

Smith is a well-known figure in labor circles as a man obsessed with union-busting and an unapologetic defender of unfair labor practices. Smith has challenged the National Labor Relations Board on behalf of  several clients accused of employing illegal tactics to break up labor unions.

The players say they have agreed to management’s demand to cut salaries by 25 percent. The musicians only request was to retain the current number of players, now at 71. The request was denied, and orchestra management continues to demand the total number be reduced to 55 players.

“They [orchestra management] keep moving the goalposts,” says one insider. “We reluctantly agree to the terms, then – bang- it’s something else they want.”

The musicians have been without a contract, without pay, without health insurance and without job security since May 2011. That didn’t stop them from trying to work with management as recently as rcently as September when the musicians played in a production of Carmen for the Kentucky Opera.

This situation has been set up by design to bust the union even if it means destroying the orchestra. The hiring of key figures such as the notorious Smith and the bad-faith bargaining tactics being used by the orchestra’s management point to one goal, and it isn’t the long-term survival of this institution.

The orchestra management’s third “last, best and final offer” was unanimously rejected by the musicians last week. A key sticking point is management’s insistence musicians obtain prior approval before doing any “moonlighting” by performing outside the regular orchestra schedule! This is an unprecedented move, particularly when considering the sizable cut in pay.

Imagine telling a police officer he or she couldn’t make a few extra bucks by providing off-duty security.

The musicians of the Louisville Orchestra are professional artists who cannot be replaced on a whim. Some of them have even uprooted their families from other states to take a chance on Louisville, and they are invested in this community.

Since there are no professional sports teams in Louisville, corporations promote the arts scene as a way to bring in investment, or to entice the promising young executives to relocate to the area. Without a full-time, professional orchestra, Louisville loses a little bit more of it’s competitive edge if the musicians lose their fight to preserve a “world class” group.

For every negative comment received over the weekend leafleting campaign by the players, there were four positive comments.

Labor activist Kirk Gillenwaters talks with a supporter of the Louisville Orchestra musicians.

“We miss you,” said a man entering the door. “This is, simply, an untenable situation.” said another. “They [orchestra management] cannot continue down this path, or they will destroy what we have built here over the last 75 years. It is sad, and I am with you.”

Others said they planned to leave at the first intermission as a show of solidarity with the musicians.

Whether labor organizations or the community at large will refrain from giving to the Fund for the Arts – a major funding mechanism for the Louisville Orchestra – as a punishment to the orchestra’s board is uncertain.

But one thing is certain.

More people are watching this issue, and more of them are becoming interested in the idea of a musician-run orchestra.

There is also a growing chorus calling for the dismissal of the board overseeing the orchestra.

More as it happens.