ArtsATL > Music > News: With contract deadline looming, musicians dig in with sharp criticism of ASO leadership

News: With contract deadline looming, musicians dig in with sharp criticism of ASO leadership

The ASO Players Association on the Woodruff campus in 2012.

The ASO Players Association on the Woodruff campus in 2012.

With the deadline for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s 2014 contract expiring at midnight on Saturday — and no agreement in sight after yet another meeting today — musicians broke their longstanding silence to issue a statement that noted they have already endured substantial pay cuts, and accused the company’s management of not keeping their part of the bargain to raise sufficient funds to balance the budget.

“Once again, the management of the ASO and the WAC [Woodruff Arts Center] are demanding that every single musician shoulder thousands of dollars in additional concessions,” said Paul Murphy, associate principal violist and president of the ASO Players’ Association.

With only two days to reach agreement on their 2014 contract, musicians offered management their fourth contract proposal today. They said they have refused to accept management proposals to cut players’ pay and health benefits and reduce the size of the orchestra. In 2012, musicians accepted a $14,000 annual pay cut and a reduced season, on the basis that management required the concession to balance the budget and shape a new business model for the orchestra. 

“The musicians were assured that this cut was a one-time-only concession that would be met in equal measure by additional fundraising,” Murphy said. “CEO Stanley Romanstein has failed to raise the funding necessary to balance the budget. Meanwhile, the WAC rewarded him with a new three-year contract, despite a catastrophic failure to reach budgeted goals during FY13.” 

The ASO's Paul Murphy.
The ASO’s Paul Murphy.

Murphy said it is unknown what will happen after Saturday if no agreement is reached. “I will tell you that at last Friday’s session, Romanstein told us that ‘September 6 is a firm deadline.’”

ASO spokesman Randy Donaldson disputed the musicians’ claims about cuts in pay. “What has not been communicated is that the most recent proposal of management to musicians includes a pay increase,” he said. “It’s not a pay cut. It’s a pay increase.”

While management has proposed a rise in health-care costs, that increase would bring the musicians in line with the rest of the symphony staff, according to Donaldson. Currently, he said, musicians pay only $10 a week for health care, whether for family or for an individual. Before 2012, their health care was covered entirely by management.

Earlier this week, the symphony’s artistic leaders — music director Robert Spano and principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles — wrote an impassioned open letter to ASO’s board, management and musicians that voiced deep concern about “contentious” negotiations. Although reluctant to take sides, the maestros warned against any cuts that might jeopardize the orchestra’s artistic legacy and urged management to explore new ways to overcome the orchestra’s financial difficulties. “There are artistic lines that cannot and must not be crossed,” they wrote. 

For eight months, musicians and management have been hushed about contract negotiations, with both sides insisting they hope to avoid a rehash of 2012’s bitter labor dispute that saw musicians locked out of symphony facilities for a month without pay or health benefits. That year, management forced musicians to accept an average 15 percent drop in salary, dropped the number of full-time musicians from 95 to 88 and reduced the season from 52 to 42 weeks. 

For management, the priority is safeguarding the financial health of the orchestra, which has struggled with operating deficits for more than a decade. In 2012, as the ASO’s accumulated debt reached $23 million, it had an annual budget deficit of $5 million. Since then, management claims to have made progress, yet insists its position remains unsustainable. While the ASO has reduced its annual budget deficit from $5 million, after devoting $18 million from its endowment, its accumulated debt stands at $5 million, and ticket sales and fundraising have declined in the last two years.

While overall fundraising has decreased, Donaldson noted that management upped its efforts, introducing two special and incremental funding proposals — reaching out to the corporate community to raise $1.5 million per year over three years, and raising half a million dollars a year for two years from an anonymous donor. It also upped the number of “ASO Presents” events, popular revenue generators, from 5 to 30 a year. 

“There’s no question the musicians made sacrifices,” said Donaldson. “But the management did a lot as well in trying to raise additional money. Still, the financial position is that we have a $2 million loss. Revenue continues to decline.”

Two years ago, Donaldson said, the annual budget deficit was $5 million; a year ago it had gone down to $2.9 million and now it is down to $2 million.

The musicians, who note in their statement that they account for only a quarter of the ASO’s budget, have long claimed that further cuts will compromise the company’s artistic excellence and diminish its standing as one of the premier orchestras in the world. They say that since 2012, an unusually high number of musicians have parted ways with the company — either to retire or take on new positions elsewhere — and the orchestra now has key gaps in its sections. 

Earlier this week, Spano and Runnicles said they felt compelled to speak out “lest we fail in our duty to preserve the extraordinary legacy that has passed into our hands.” While it is rare for music directors to intervene in contract negotiations between musicians and management, it is not unprecedented. Last year, Osmo Vänskä, the esteemed music director of the Minnesota Orchestra, resigned his post to protest a protracted lockout of musicians. Vänskä did not shy away from supporting the players — conducting with them as they were locked out, and even going so far as to suggest that the orchestra’s then president, Michael Henson, resign. Earlier this year, Henson stepped down and Vänskä returned on a new two-year contract.

As orchestras across the country struggle with declining revenues and mounting deficits, Spano and Runnicles appealed to management to acknowledge the sacrifices musicians had already made in 2012. They also voiced concern about future lockouts and suggested that a long-term agreement, without disruptive bouts between management and musicians every two years, might ensure more stability and allow both sides to focus more on rebuilding the orchestra and winning support within the wider community. 

“We must avoid the residue of discord and acrimony,” they wrote. “The concept that stopping the music — whether characterized as lockout or strike — as a reasonable alternative is unfathomable, deeply divisive, and would be a tragic mistake.” 

The ASO issued a statement Wednesday that said, “We fully agree with the sentiments expressed in the letter” from Spano and Runnicles — most notably, that musicians have made “significant sacrifices” in the last two years, that ASO’s high musical standards are “critically important and should not be compromised,” and ”that a work stoppage is not in the best interests of anyone.”

The statement, however, goes on to note that “the continuation of operating deficits that have been on-going for 12 years” is also not in anyone’s best interests. While the company’s poor financial health has led to concerns from donors, as well as a “precipitous decline” in the company’s endowment, the statement concluded that “we believe there are solutions that will allow the ASO management and musicians to balance the artistic and financial needs of the orchestra for the long term.”

The orchestra’s 70th anniversary season, featuring Mozart’s Symphony No. 35 and Piano Concerto No. 20 and Strauss’ “Don Juan” and “Till Eulenspiegel,” is scheduled to open September 25. Before then, ATL Symphony Musicians, an informal group that ASO musicians set up in 2012, will present an evening of chamber orchestra music, with Mary Hoffman conducting, at Terminal West on September 22.

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