With the deadline for a new collective bargaining agreement with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra musicians expiring at midnight on Saturday, relations are becoming more frayed as musicians and management — facing the possibility of a second lockout in as many years — struggle to reach an agreement. The labor strife intensified Friday with musicians offering more details of their negotiations over pay and health care, as well as the size of the orchestra, and the duration of the contract.
ASO spokesman Randy Donaldson said management issued a “last, best and final” proposal Friday afternoon. The musicians’ latest counterproposal was offered Thursday.
The musicians discussed publicly for the first time Friday the depth of the divide in negotiations. One of the biggest points of contention is the number of musicians. In 2012, management cut the number of full-time players from 95 to 88, which musicians insist is a bare minimum to maintain a high-caliber orchestra. So far, ASO has not committed to upholding any fixed quantity of musicians.
“This is a huge issue for us,” said Paul Murphy, associate principal violist and president of the ASO Players’ Association, noting that management’s refusal to specify the orchestra’s size is unprecedented in the Atlanta symphony’s contract history. “Every major American orchestra lists a fixed number in its collective bargaining agreement that indicates how big the orchestra will be.” The absence of any commitment, he said, only creates more uncertainty about ASO’s future.
After more than eight months of talks with the ASO management, Murphy said there has been “almost no progress” that would maintain the “quality of artistry of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.” Management’s proposals, he said, have only sought to “marginalize and diminish our great orchestra.”
On Thursday, Donaldson announced that management had proposed to increase musicians’ salary. “What has not been communicated is that the most recent proposal of management to musicians includes a pay increase,” Donaldson said. “It’s not a pay cut. It’s a pay increase.”
That “pay increase,” according to the musicians, amounts to about $750 a year and is more than off-set by increased healthcare costs. Murphy offered a scathing response Friday, saying the ASO had made “misleading and half-truth comments” about the proposed pay hike. Murphy said management did not submit the proposal until August 16. “It took eight months for them to put a single nickel on the table,” he said, noting that the amount would not “in any way begin to cover the increased cost they’re proposing to our healthcare contributions.”
Cost increases in musician healthcare contributions, ASOPA said in a release, would be as high as $4,729 in the first year to over $5,515 in the fourth year of management’s proposed contract. “These contributions totally annihilate any of the proposed salary increases and actually mean major cuts to take home pay,” the ASOPA said.
At the end of management’s proposed four-year agreement, according to the Players’ Association, musicians with healthcare contributions for families would earn $2,121 less than they do now in take-home pay. Musicians’ take-home pay would drop from the current $75,416 to $71, 207 in the first year of the proposed agreement, only rising to $73,294 by the fourth year.
While Murphy conceded that management’s healthcare proposal would bring the musicians in line with the rest of ASO’s staff, he said that musicians typically compare their salaries to fellow players, and the change would make Atlanta out of step with comparable orchestras around the country. “The Atlanta symphony is already in line with what other orchestras contribute,” he said.
Donaldson declined to discuss the size of the orchestra or pay. Responding to musicians’ argument that their healthcare coverage would no longer be equivalent to other symphonies, he would only say: “The ASO has to focus on its own organization and its own financial realities.”
Disagreement also surrounds the duration of the new contract. According to Murphy, musicians have repeatedly pushed for a five-year contract, arguing that will ensure the orchestra more stability, while management has proposed one that lasts three or four years.
On Wednesday, the symphony’s artistic leaders — music director Robert Spano and principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles — took the unusual step of writing an open letter that urged musicians and management to work together to avert a future lockout. “We must avoid the residue of discord and acrimony,” they wrote in an open letter to ASO’s board, musicians and management. “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.”
Spano and Runnicles also expressed concern about the orchestra’s artistic integrity. “The ASO is a jewel, which should not be lost or compromised, and the current conditions threaten that loss,“ Spano and Runnicles cautioned. “There are artistic lines that cannot and must not be crossed.”
Much of the controversy stems from cuts management imposed on musicians during the last round of labor negotiations in 2012. Facing an annual budget deficit of $5 million, management slashed musicians’ pay by about $14,000 a year and required that they contribute $10 a week to their healthcare. It also dropped the number of full-time musicians from 95 to 88 and reduced the length of the orchestra’s season from 52 to 42 weeks.
Musicians say they agreed to these concessions with the understanding that management would steer the company to a more financially sustainable position, ensuring the orchestra maintained its legacy as one of the finest classical ensembles in the world.
“They have not fulfilled their promises to either the symphony musicians or the board of directors or the Atlanta community,” Murphy said. “They’re coming back two years later asking for sharp and deep cuts, both financially and philosophically, that will forever damage the standing and the artistry of the Atlanta symphony.”
Management has pushed back against musicians’ claims, noting that it has made concerted efforts in the last two years to pursue new funding opportunities, securing $4.5 million over three years from corporate donors and $1 million over two years from one anonymous donor. It has also upped the number of ASO Presents events, offering more revenue-generating concerts with popular musical acts such as Art Garfunkel, ZZ Top and Widespread Panic. Still, ticket sales and fundraising have declined.
Even with the players’ 2012 concessions, the symphony continues to operate on a deficit. While management insists it has made progress — reducing the annual budget deficit from $5 million in 2012 to $2 million in 2014 — it claims the company’s position is not sustainable without further cuts.
Musicians have repeatedly countered the idea that the orchestra can cut its way to prosperity. After eight months of private negotiation and with the deadline looming, they are beginning to publicly question the ASO’s artistic and financial stewardship, pointedly criticizing the orchestra’s President and CEO, Stanley Romanstein, who they claim has been rewarded with a new three-year contract despite a “catastrophic failure to reach budgeted goals” in 2013.
While ASO management initially budgeted an annual deficit of $1.5 million for 2013 fiscal year, Murphy said, the eventual deficit reached around $2.8 million. “They almost doubled the deficit for that year. Even with our concessions of $5.2 million, the budget explodes.”
While much of musicians’ criticism has focused on Romanstein, he is almost certainly under considerable pressure from the Woodruff Art Center, the orchestra’s parent organization, to balance the ASO budget. Last year, Moody’s Investors Service, the credit rating agency, changed WAC’s rating outlook from stable to negative, largely on the basis of the symphony’s financial predicament.
“The negative outlook is primarily based on the ongoing deficit operations of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (ASO), a division that comprised 31 percent of operating expenses in fiscal 2013,” the report said. “While other divisions are operating at close to breakeven, the ASO’s deficits are an ongoing drag on overall performance.”
What happens next is uncertain. Until this week, both sides had maintained they hoped to avoid a repeat of the bitter 2012 dispute that resulted in musicians locked out of symphony facilities for a month without pay.
In the last month, several orchestras around the country — the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the San Francisco Opera and, most recently, the Nashville Symphony — have struggled to reach agreement yet entered “play and talk” scenarios after their deadline expired, thus averting work stoppages.
Murphy said he is still unsure whether there will be a lockout, with management deactivating musicians’ key cards and hiring security staff to prevent musicians from entering symphony facilities. “I hope that they’re planning to continue negotiations up and through the actual expiration of the existing agreement,” Murphy said. “I hope we can find an honorable way forward.”