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At the symphony, it's play-and-talk time

A half-year of contract negotiations has yielded little progress, and now the players' contract has expired. Management is staying mum, but the union has given its version of the major issues.
Seattle Symphony Orchestra. (SSO)

Seattle Symphony Orchestra. (SSO) None

Is the Seattle Symphony moving toward a strike? It’s certainly not showing much movement toward a settlement, and as of Jan. 1, the players are operating without a contract. Even though they now could, both sides seem understandably reluctant to move to a lockout or a strike — at least for now. This week, for the first time, some details of the negotiations emerged, though management is still staying mum. The sides appear to have remained far apart for months.

The most recent five-year contract expired in late summer, and an extension had a deadline of Dec. 31, 2009. The latest round of talks also failed to get an agreement or even, so far as I can discern though the murk, much positive movement. Management has now presented its supposedly best, last offer, which will be voted on by the full Seattle Symphony Orchestra Players Organization, a local union, next week (and likely defeated).

Talks will then probably continue, likely for a few months, before one side blinks or somebody intervenes to mediate (and perhaps imposes some tough love). Labor relations have been bad for years at the SSO, so resolution won’t be easy. Meanwhile, pressure will grow on the orchestra management to get a settlement, so they can plan next season and sell tickets to it.

According to Jeff Fair, a French hornist and member of the union’s negotiating committee, management has offered a five-year contract with an initial 10 percent wage cut. The union counter is a 20-month contract with a 1.3 percent cut for the first eight months (a nod to the current recession and the SSO board's insistence on breaking even this budget year), and a 3.4 percent raise for the subsequent 12 months.

Another key issue concerns unfilled positions in the orchestra, currently eight players. Management (again according to Fair and unconfirmed by SSO management) wants to keep them unfilled — meaning freelancers are used, saving on benefits — and add more as vacancies occur. The union counters with only allowing a maximum of six unfilled positions.

Each side makes a good case. The orchestra notes that it has a $4 million deficit a modest endowment of $24 million, a big annual budget of $22 million, and a whole lot of repair work to do (such as finding a new conductor, a new executive director, and filling other key staff positions). It needs relief from the over-optimistic salary increases put in effect for players in the giddy times of building Benaroya Hall. And it needs the predictability of a five-year contract, albeit one negotiated in the middle of hard times.

The players’ counter-case is to use the coming 20 months to find a crack new executive director, arguing that attracting a good one will be easier since he or she will help select the new conductor, a key partner. With that leader installed, the SSO will be able to rebuild, rouse the community with an exciting new conductor, and recover from the period of ill-will engendered by a decade of debilitating battles over when to find a new maestro to replace the very-long-serving Gerard Schwarz. (He steps down at the end of next season.)

The symphony brought in two top advisers to try to get an agreement. At the outset, it employed Henry Fogel, a noted orchestra-fixer, to work on improving trust and communications between the players and management. Fogel is no longer on the scene, and his early efforts seem to have waned over time. Next came Ralph Craviso, a powerful New York lawyer and labor negotiator who has advised airlines, Yale University (notorious for its hostile unions), and some orchestras.

The little local Seattle union (which separated from the national American Federation of Musicians decades ago) feels distinctly outgunned. It also knows that going on strike in a recession, bringing to public scrutiny all the perks and pay a professional symphony musician gets, is not an effective option. (Base minimum pay for the SSO is $78,750, rather low by national standards.)


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Jan 6, 11:41 p.m. Inappropriate

The Seattle Symphony musicians are the region's unsung treasures. if you have heard them recently with Ludovic Morlot or David Robertson or Vassily Sinaissky, you will know what I mean. Come to Benaroya Hall this weekend to hear Kurt Masur interpret Bruckner with the lengendary Seattle horn section led by John Cerminaro and Mark Robbins. They are the real deal. By the way, what's up with the principal cello seat, we had all kinds of fun with Josh Roman....my kids learned to love the symphony by watching him. ...and where did Amos Yang go? He was great too. We enjoy all the musicians, especially Stefan Farkas and his exceptional English Horn playing. I assume they are paid something like San Francisco and they are more than worth it. They have our best wishes.....

Posted Thu, Jan 7, 1:25 a.m. Inappropriate

Interestingly, the SSO musicians earn more than they cost in ticket sales alone... so where is the "problem?" I believe they are compensated around 60% of what San Francisco musicians' salary.
And, the SSO management hired the one attorney in the world who is known mainly for locking out orchestras and sending them into a permanent downward spiral into lesser heights. Why would an orchestra hire an attorney who seems to *hate* musicians? Locked out Jacksonville for 10 weeks, forced Philadelphia Orchestra to strike for 9 weeks, San Diego, New Hampshire, and drove many others downward...he does only one thing, and does it well. http://www.gatheringnote.org/?p=6244
http://theafmobserver.typepad.com/abu_bratsche/2009/11/a-coupdefestival.html
(read to the end to see Craviso is helping put the NHMF on a path to firing the orchestra)
http://www.silveroakdesign.com/nhmfTemp/index.php/press/169-81609-laconia-daily-sun

Olympic

Posted Thu, Jan 7, 7:24 a.m. Inappropriate

Mr. Brewster,
It seems you left some important info out of your article. According to information submitted by the SSO to the League of American Orchestras, the Seattle Symphony, among it's budgetary peers:
Plays the most concerts in the shortest season.
Sells the most tickets.
Covers by far the largest percentage of it's expenses through ticket sales.
Collects by far the lowest amount of unearned (donations, government grants) revenue.

This peer group includes Indianapolis and Baltimore. That's right. How many of your readers think of Baltimore and Indianapolis as artistically superior to Seattle?

You mention that the Symphony "needs relief from over-optimistic salary increases". Somehow you forgot to connect the dots to the 3.2 million in concessions already given, voluntarily, by the musicians since 2005. In point of fact, the current proposal would guarantee that the original 2005 salary level (which has still not been reached) would not be reached until 2014.

Yes, there have been problems at the Symphony. In spite of this, the orchestra continues to present concerts at the highest level on a regular basis. A visit this weekend to hear the Symphony play with Kurt Masur would convince anyone that this is an orchestra worth keeping.

rtmaniac

Posted Thu, Jan 7, 7:30 a.m. Inappropriate

Artswatcher, to answer some of your questions, Josh Roman left the orchestra in order to pursue a solo career. Amos Yang left the orchestra in order to go and play with the San Francisco Symphony.
A year ago we had a 1st chair cello audition and Amos Yang won that job and we were all looking forward to Amos's return. However, our 1st chair cello pay (salary, pension..) couldn't come close to San Francisco's 3rd chair cello pay, so Amos (wisely) decided to stay in San Francisco. There have been other times where we have lost some of our best players due to the low salary (when compared to what other big orchestras are offering). I realize that we won't catch up to San Francisco anytime soon, however I think that we should try to catch up to orchestras like Detroit, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh... (all of these orchestras offer better wages than Seattle, to say nothing for the cost of living).
I would like to be able to keep our best players and attract great players to our auditions and built an even greater orchestra, I think that Seattle deserves nothing less.

player1

Posted Thu, Jan 7, 8:31 a.m. Inappropriate

It's a scary and sobering time for me. The thought of going on strike is anathema. But so is the thought of allowing this management to proceed on its current path. Michael Kaiser, he of the proven track record of saving ailing arts organizations, tells us that our management's course is tantamount to artistic suicide (no head of Marketing, cutting instead of planning for the future, etc.).

Face it. Symphony orchestras in this country are charities. Charities survive primarily on donations. Donations are encouraged by great plans for the organization. This, and this alone, fuel a non-profit. Yet management says there is NO WAY TO INCREASE the SSO's donations, although they are the lowest amongst its peers!

I'm deathly afraid that this management's fear of risk, a necessary component of any American arts organization, prevent it from seeing the light and changing course. So does its hubris. Sadly, unless they alter their current stance, which is phenomenally intransigent, I see no alternative to a strike, not only for the musicians' sake but to save the Symphony from certain extinction.

There is a proven method to save the Symphony. There is also a proven method to doom it. I continue to hope for something to change management's course from the latter to the former.

Posted Thu, Jan 7, 9:26 a.m. Inappropriate

It sounds to me from some of the info above that the orchestra needs to invest in a top-notch development team that can tap into some of the resources this region has and reward the musicians appropriately. It's unconscionable that Seattle has fallen so far behind other major orchestras given that SSO plays more concerts and sells more tickets. I sincerely hope a solution can be reached that will attract and retain the talent we have here. Our orchestra is world-class, and it would be short-sighted not to invest in this critical piece of our arts culture.

artslover

Posted Thu, Jan 7, 11:46 a.m. Inappropriate

One factor to keep in mind, in assessing how much money the SSO can raise from donations, is that it has a small endowment. That means the orchestra must raise a lot of contributed income each year, since it gets a small amount from endowment distributions. Also, Seattle has a lot of big-budget arts organizations for a city of its size, and one powerhouse board (Seattle Art Museum) that takes precedence over the Symphony. In many cities, the symphony is top dog.

I would say that the key factors to keep in mind in sizing up Seattle arts groups are: there are a lot of them, carving up the pie into thin slices; endowments are small; the new economy donors are not oriented toward the arts (except visual arts in the case of collectors); and that public/governmental funding is unusually small. Not to excuse the SSO for its own shortcomings, but the organization is staring up some very steep slopes.

Posted Thu, Jan 7, 2:24 p.m. Inappropriate

David you make some good points, however I think that the Seattle Symphony endowment and our overall financial health should not be this bad. I know that in the past few years the St. Louis, and Nashville symphony orchestras have both raised their endowments to over 100 million dollars, and the Cincinnati Symphony just received an 85 million dollar gift from a patron. The Seattle area should be a much easier place to raise money than these cities. You mentioned the Art Museum, and I think that they raised their endowment to over 100 million dollars, while the Seattle Symphony endowment is now the same as it was 6 years ago (although maybe you pointed out the difference between the two organizations, the Seattle Art Museum has "one powerhouse board" ).

player1

Posted Thu, Jan 7, 4:55 p.m. Inappropriate

Dear Mr Brewster,

Thank you for your thoughts on the Seattle Symphony negotiations. When referring to Henry Fogel as “a noted orchestra-fixer”, it is stated as a given. Yet his history contradicts this notion. Both Fogel and Ralph Craviso, who work as a team, are controversial in the industry. The New Hampshire Music Festival recently rejected the Fogel/Craviso model after a bitter dispute. As has been case here in Seattle, the management was poorly advised by the duo. Their corporate cookie-cutter model does not fit with performing arts organizations. Luckily for that Festival, this was realized in time to correct the course.

Craviso is also known for his association with orchestra negotiations that ended in work stoppages. The example in Jacksonville, Florida has parallels to the situation here in Seattle. Craviso locked the musicians out. Is he advising our management to do the same?

A further point: in light of management’s perceived financial situation, is it wise to engage the services of not one, but two, high-priced, out-of-town advisors? Are donations to the Symphony being siphoned off to pay for them? The musicians want to know how much these two are costing the Symphony.

Donors should rightly expect to see and hear their philanthropic dollars realized on stage at Benaroya Hall, not deposited in some New York lawyer’s bank account.

Tim Hale, Chair
Seattle Symphony and Opera Players’ Organization

SSOPO

Posted Mon, Jan 11, 6:01 a.m. Inappropriate

Dear rtmaniac,

When positioning your case for support of the Seattle Symphony or its arts community do not seek to undermine the great work done in other cities, such as Indianapolis or Baltimore. You obviously have not heard the orchestras there perform and are basing your opinion on perceptions perpetuated through ignorant rumor. Both cities have made great strides artistically, and have a committed support system. In this extraordinary time, artists and their supporters should act and speak in concert to enlighten and engage an increasingly culturally illiterate public...not speak ill of one's colleagues half a continent away. I love the city of Seattle and hope that the community finds a path through this difficulty, and then shares their solution with all to determine if there might be some way of strengthening fine arts institutions across the country.

CathyS

Posted Tue, Jan 12, 1:36 p.m. Inappropriate

BIG Picture thinking please...

Seattle lost the Sonics through management incompetance. Some said we can always get another team, but to date we are without a NBA team. All those regional sports fans now stay home or travel to Portland. Did that experience benefit Seattle?

Boeing is now headquartered in Chicago through government incompetance. Now all those international customers and suppliers can spend their travel budgets in the Windy City rather than the Emerald City. Was that move really in the best interest of Seattle?

Let's see if the Arts community can be a different story. Seattle and it's glorious symphony have suffered through tough economic times before and managed to emerge triumphant. From movie soundtracks to children's concerts, This orchestra is loved by the whole region and it's loss would be felt by every merchant in the downtown area. It's so easy to consider the symphony a small institution that caters to an even smaller segment of the population, but that kind of thinking could be a very LARGE mistake. Beneroya Hall wasn't built for trade shows. Work something out - don't enlarge the list of failures that diminish our Region.

-JVJohnson

JVJohnson

Posted Wed, Jan 13, 5:46 p.m. Inappropriate

It seems the way things are going we will not have a SSO by the end of this year. Sad, but that's the way it is when you don't prioritize correctly.

Alex

Posted Tue, Jan 19, 11:49 a.m. Inappropriate

During times of economic slowdown, there is a tendency to prioritize for
basic needs and the arts suffer. Survival of the body is important, but
there is more to life than eating and sleeping for some 80 years. Art
does elevate the experience of being alive.

One finds great orchestras in major metropolitan centers around the
world. Seattle is a major city. As such, the challenge for Seattle is to
continue to offer the highest level of support for the Seattle Symphony
and it's excellent musicians .

Dan Lavry
Bainbridge Island

Dan_Lavry

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