(Editor’s Note: This post has been updated with new information.)
Federal mediation in the bitter labor dispute between Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s management and musicians appears to have stalled after only two days of negotiations last week.
The musicians — who have been locked out of symphony facilities almost six weeks without pay — vented their frustration with management yesterday evening in a letter to the ASO’s board of directors. They said the federal mediation process was halted last Thursday after only two days of meetings when representatives of the orchestra’s parent organization, the Woodruff Arts Center, said they had to consult its governing board for further guidance and instruction.
WAC spokesman Randy Donaldson has not responded to a request for comment.
After waiting a week for negotiations to resume, the musicians said that federal mediator Allison Beck — acting director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service — informed them there would be no further meetings this week. Beck will be away for a week beginning today. Her colleague, Richard Giacolone, will remain available in the event that WAC’s negotiators — including legal counsel Tom Kilpatrick of Alston & Bird and WAC president and CEO Virginia Hepner — return to the table to work out a potential settlement.
The federal mediation process requires that neither side speaks to the media. In their email to the ASO board, the musicians called WAC’s actions “disappointing.” The musicians said that after clearing their schedules, and even turning down offers of work in the hope of resolving the dispute, they continue to wait for WAC to “stop wasting precious time.”
“Clearly, once again, they arrived at the table with neither proposals nor the ability to authorize a deal,” the musicians wrote to the ASO board members in a letter that was circulated last night on social media. “The insensitivity to the musicians and our families, who have been deprived of paychecks, healthcare benefits, and the ability to collect unemployment benefits for six weeks now, however, is daily more deplorable.”
On September 7, ASO management locked out the musicians for the second time in two years after failing to agree on a new collective bargaining agreement. Before the parties entered federal mediation, there was a $2.4 million gulf between management and musicians’ proposals.
The two sides are locked in a deep impasse about the kind of orchestra they want to emerge from a new contract. While management argues that the company’s annual $2 million budget deficit is unsustainable and requires the musicians to be more “flexible,” the musicians counter that they accepted severe pay cuts in 2012 only for the company to break its promise to steer the company to greater financial stability.
A major obstacle to an agreement is management’s refusal to commit to a certain size of the orchestra. Under its proposal, the ASO’s president and CEO would have final say on whether to fill vacancies in the ensemble. That would change decades of U.S. orchestral precedent — the nation’s leading companies specify the number of musicians in the orchestras through their collective bargaining agreements.
“Our will to preserve our orchestra is every bit as strong as our desire that this damaging lockout end,” the musicians wrote. “We continue to wait for movement from the WAC leadership that would preserve the ASO as a world-class orchestra and prevent the image of the city of Atlanta from being further tarnished as a premier destination to visit, to live, and to be in business.”
In their letter, the musicians appealed to ASO board members to “make clear to the Woodruff Arts Center leadership that the destructive tactics typified by the lockout and takedown of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, if allowed to persist, will have serious and far-reaching consequences for the ASO, the Woodruff Arts Center and our entire community.”
Already, concerts for the 70th anniversary season have been canceled through November 8.
Four musicians have left the ASO since the orchestra’s summer break. The latest, Alcides Rodriguez — a 38-year-old clarinet player from Venezuela who joined the orchestra in 2005 — has accepted a one-year position with the New York Philharmonic. Rodriguez, who traveled to New York City to fill in as a temporary player after he was locked out in September, was offered a position within two weeks of his arrival.
“I have mixed feelings,” Rodriguez said from New York. “I feel really bad leaving my colleagues in that situation. But at the same time I don’t have a contract and I think that anyone who was offered a more stable opportunity would take it.”
Rodriguez is not the first ASO musician to join the New York Philharmonic this year amid all the contract uncertainty. Even before the lockout, two ASO players, Colin Williams and Richard Deane, took on full-time positions for the Philharmonic. Another ASO player, Jennifer Humpreys, left for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.
“The damage already wrought by the WAC — the very institution entrusted with the stewardship of Atlanta’s cultural pride — will take years to reverse,” the musicians warned the ASO board. “But it can be reversed, and must be.”