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.
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Seattle Symphony Orchestra. (SSO)

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.

Is the Seattle Symphony moving toward a strike? It'ꀙs 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'ꀙt 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'ꀙs 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'ꀙ 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.)

Recently, the union has started taking its case public and talking to political supporters, even while management says it'ꀙs 'ꀜnot getting specific.'ꀝ The players have a side agreement with Seattle Opera, basically a one-year freeze of the current contract to next August, and the union cites that as an example of how intransigent the SSO is being. They also cite the concessions in wages and benefits made by the players in the past four years, amounting to $3.2 million by their accounting. Union spokesperson Tim Hale, a violist, makes the point that 'ꀜa five-year substandard contract with inflexible conditions'ꀝ is no way to attract top new leadership.

Still, both sides seem to want to continue to play and talk. Dan McConnell, a management spokesperson, says the orchestra expects to 'ꀜcontinue to perform without an agreement, and expects to keep the process going until a resolution.'ꀝ One possible forcing step would be for management to declare an impasse, unilaterally implementing its last, best offer, and forcing the union to respond.


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