A discord resolved at the Symphony

With tempers badly frayed, the musicians and the SSO reach a split-the-difference tentative settlement. Here are the details.
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Gerard Schwarz, Seattle Symphony Orchestra

With tempers badly frayed, the musicians and the SSO reach a split-the-difference tentative settlement. Here are the details.

The Seattle Symphony and its players reached a tentative contract agreement earlier this week that pretty much split the difference between the two sides. Tense negotiations had gone on for nine months, turning into "a street brawl" in the words of one of the musician leaders. Both sides were putting a good face on the outcome, but the legacy of angry feelings will not soon fade.

Two developments helped resolve the impasse. One was the suggestion, coming from the musicians, that they each chip in $2,010 to the current Annual Fund campaign of the Symphony — in effect a tax-deductible pay cut to go on top of the 5 percent cut for the remainder of this season. "That broke the logjam," says Symphony spokesperson Dan O'Connell, adding that it will prove to be "a catalyst for fundraising" from other sources. The musicians had done something like this years ago, contributing to the endowment. This gesture was in response to the Symphony's serious cash flow problems in the current year.

A second factor was the arrival of a nationally prominent labor attorney on the musicians' side, Susan Martin of Phoenix, who has helped reach labor resolutions in several major orchestras and helped frame the musicians' proposal for a contribution. Spokesman Tim Hale says the musicians' union had sought her services before, but she was unavailable until recently. Federal mediator Gary Hattal continued working in the marathon sessions this week, and had been working with both sides since mid-November.

For those keeping score, here's how the tentative deal matches with the earlier bargaining positions. Management had wanted a five-year contract (the current one expired in September and was extended to Dec. 31, 2009); the players had pushed for a 20-month contract, not wanting to lock in recession rates. The compromise is a 23-month contract, running from Feb. 1, 2010 to Dec. 31, 2011, but if the Symphony is able to raise enough money to give players a 2 percent raise in the 2011-12 season, then the contract automatically extends to August 31, 2012.

As for the money matters, the players take a 5 percent immediate cut (plus the mandatory contribution) for this season, then revert to their present pay levels ($78,750 as minimum base pay) for next season, and perhaps get the 2 percent raise at the start of 2012. Management had pushed for a 10 percent cut, with a gradual restoration to current levels; the players offered a modest 1.3 percent immediate cut and a 3.4 percent raise after eight months. Additionally, the players will have to pay more for their health care, with the Symphony not yet releasing those figures.

The last major dispute was over unfilled positions — contracted positions currently vacant and so being filled by freelancers. Normally, the Symphony has 91 players under annual contract, and there are now seven or eight unfilled. The Symphony lists them as: principal cello plus two other cello section players, two viola chairs, a second oboe, and a keyboardist. All will be left unfilled for this season; after that the orchestra is allowed only six unfilled positions, regardless of any new vacancies.

The settlement was a huge relief for both sides. Even so, many players are still very upset over the way they say the board dealt with them in the negotiations, showing what they regarded as too little respect. But at least a walkout was averted, maybe narrowly. And if there is a silver lining it is that the Symphony will soon be changing from the top: President Tom Philion departs in June and music director Gerard Schwarz retires after the 2010-11 season. The musicians seem eager to turn over a new leaf, build new excitement, and try new things, hoping a dramatically new regime will excite donors and audiences, and restore more harmony in the Symphony family.


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