Orchestras Locked Out Across The Country As Contract Disputes Continue

Description 1 Atlanta Symphony Hall lobby, Midtown Atlanta Georgia, May 2010 | Source | Author John Phelan  | Date 2010-05-21
Description 1 Atlanta Symphony Hall lobby, Midtown Atlanta Georgia, May 2010 | Source | Author John Phelan | Date 2010-05-21 | Permission ...

This hasn't been a good month for concert musicians. As orchestras across the country continue to tighten their belts, players are being asked to make do with less. And if agreements aren't reached soon, mounting tensions could leave a handful of America's top orchestras without any actual players on their stages in the coming season.

Talks have completely stalled at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, where musicians are currently locked out of their home at the Woodruff Arts Center.

Facing a potential $20 million deficit, the ASO proposed more than $5 million in cuts to musicians' salaries over two years. The musicians' union collectively agreed to $4 million in cuts over that same period, but no more than that. In response, the ASO has halted the musicians' salaries, health benefits, and rehearsals, until an agreement can be reached.

Currently, the average yearly compensation for an ASO musician stands at $131,000 -- including insurance benefits, instrument insurance and paid vacation. According to the website Musician Wages, "The lowest paying orchestras start their members at around $22,000 a year, and the highest paid orchestras starting at $143,000."

The Atlanta musicians had previously agreed to take an 11 percent pay cut if the ASO's senior management took a similar cut in their salaries, but that compromise was turned down.

In a statement to NPR, the orchestra's CEO Stanley Romanstein said reducing musicians' salaries is vital to reducing the institution's deficit.

"We're artistically vibrant right now, but we're not financially stable, and we need to take care of our business now so we can still be in business tomorrow," Romanstein said.

A similar lockout is taking place in Indiana, where the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra is shutting out musicians after weeks of failed negotiations. According to Richard Graef, principal horn player and chief negotiator for the Indianapolis musicians, the management of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra is looking to reduce the number of players in the orchestra, cut wages by 40 percent, and substantially reduce the number of concerts in the orchestra's schedule.

"They want a wage cut of 40 percent, and our current proposal is a wage cut of 20 percent," Graef told The Huffington Post. "We're going to take a large wage cut in any way, shape or form."

Graef said the musicians are willing to accept many of the ISO's proposals, but want to avoid terminating members or bringing their roster below 80 in number, since that would threaten the ISO's status as "a major American orchestra."

"I wouldn't say there's hope," Graef said. "We are closer to an agreement, although their proposal still has terminations and less than 74 musicians. I don't know. I would have been more hopeful if we weren't locked out and got to keep our health care."

The ISO has already cancelled the first two weeks of its latest season due to the contract disputes.

At the Minnesota Orchestra, contract negotiations between musicians and management have become so heated that the Orchestral Association Negotiations Committee released an open letter explaining why it's necessary to cut musicians' salaries by more than $40,000 a year. Players currently make an average of $135,000 a year.

"We have great respect for our musicians and their central role in our organization. Change is never easy, and we recognize that the proposals put forth to our musicians are a significant departure from the traditions of the past," the letter read. "We simply cannot keep performing on borrowed time."

The Minnesota Orchestra has released PDF copies of the 2012 contract proposal and summary on its website, available to the public. In response, Minnesota Orchestra trombonist Doug Wright suggested that the orchestra was "trying to manipulate our local public" against the musicians.

Jay Blumenthal of the American Federation of Musicians accused orchestras of asking their musicians for concessions too quickly, before truly exhausting their options and working to increase revenue elsewhere.

"There appears to be a pattern with many boards," he told The Huffington Post. "They come with a certain agenda and they remain undeterred. There seems to be no compromise."

Jesse Rosen, the President of the League of American Orchestras, an organization that works to benefit the musicians and the boards and administrations alike, said we should remember that the entire nonprofit arts sector is still reeling from the effects of the recession, and major orchestras are no exception.

"This is still a period of very substantial financial economic stress in the system," he said. "I think we're seeing the continuation of the challenges of a very different economy."

Though the recession has certainly taken a toll on orchestras across the country, Blumenthal countered, musicians make "too easy a target," and administrations are "taking advantage of the recession to put forth their agenda."

"We're certainly seeing unions coming under attack," he said. "Their membership coming under attack, benefits being reduced, attacks on pensions. All kinds of things that were hard-won over the years are now coming under fire." 

Rosen, however, was more optimistic. These stresses are natural, he said, considering how the economy has changed, and perhaps they will force orchestras to further innovate and question the ways they've done business in the past. 

"Everyone within the orchestra -- the musicians, the board, the management -- have a common challenge they're wrestling with," he said. "And that's the big change in American cultural life. From the role technology is playing, to the amount of competition with leisure time, to the amount of do-it-yourself culture on demand, and how young people participate in the arts. The challenge the industry faces is how to adapt."