The Symphony gives its side

Management is still not saying much about its financial plight and the details of its contract negotiations with the musicians, but a general case is emerging.
Management is still not saying much about its financial plight and the details of its contract negotiations with the musicians, but a general case is emerging.

So far, the struggle over a new contract for Seattle Symphony musicians has been asymmetric warfare. Management has the big gun, New York lawyer/negotiator Ralph Craviso, who's been playing the heavy. The players, with not even a national union to help them, have been winning the media wars, peppering the arts press (what's left of it) with points and charts and old fashioned labor rhetoric.

We'll see the first results in these skirmishes on Sunday, when the union, the Seattle Symphony & Opera Players' Organization, votes on the management's "last and best" offer. From what I can tell, the players have become quite unified in their sense that they have been treated poorly and that a proposed 10 percent salary cut is unacceptable. If the offer is rejected by a wide margin, the fat may be in the fire.

Thursday, with the players conveniently occupied in a rehearsal, the Symphony's board president, Leslie Jackson Chihuly (Mrs. Dale), gamely tried to regain a little media momentum. But the press conference drew few reporters (two) and the Symphony took refuge in generalized protestations about how they loved classical music, the musicians, and were working hard to dig out of the present financial predicament. No real details about the crucial negotiations.

Earlier in the week, Chihuly sent a letter to the musicians, a copy of which I obtained, that goes into more detail. She confesses that the Symphony is "experiencing a severe financial crisis which threatens our viability as one of the city's most revered non-profit organizations. We are beyond the point in our financial situation where short-term, extraordinary solutions can be applied. Our current finances reflect the ineffectiveness of short-term, crisis-driven fundraising, combined with the negative impact of an extraordinarily challenging recession environment." She went on to mention "immediate cash-flow problems," and that while ticket sales remain solid (3.5 percent ahead of last season so far), "the larger gifts in the $2-$10 million range have not materialized from our efforts over the past 18 months."

At the press conference, Symphony leaders added a little detail to this disturbing picture. In the past year, staff has been cut by six positions, pensions frozen, salary increases suspended, and unpaid furloughs imposed on all staff. I asked if these pay cuts included Artistic Director Gerard Schwarz, but the question was dodged. The SSO has what Chihuly called a $4.5 million "structural deficit" (presumably the accumulated deficit) and President Tom Phillion said the current $4 million line of credit at Key Bank has been drawn down by $3.1 million. Further, the endowment drive was suspended in 2008, owing to the recession and the absence of a significant leadership gift. Yikes!

As for the contract offer, Chihuly's letter spelled out how, if the board met fundraising benchmarks in years 2-5 of the proposed new contract, it would share "up to 10 percent of the money raised with the orchestra," and if it exceeded revenue goals, "both contributed and earned," it "will share 25 percent of that incremental revenue with the orchestra by increasing base scale wages." Further, failure to return money to the union under these clauses by the end of year three will produce "the opportunity to reopen the contract."

The players immediately pounced all over the Chihuly letter. One particular rejoinder: "the period of time that the contract could be open would be limited and the SSOPO would be barred from engaging in a strike." The provision, said the union, "has absolutely no value to the SSOPO." (Management declined to comment on these points.)

Through all the rising clouds of distrust, I think I could perceive what the SSO was getting at. It needs a lifeboat, in the form of some major donors, and these unnamed donors are waiting to see if the Symphony can do the following in the coming three years: get out of debt, return to balanced budgets each year, secure a five-year labor agreement and peace, and find an exciting new conductor and an experienced executive director who can last more than a few years. If so, wallets will be opened, the endowment drive will resume, and a period of new artistic initiatives will excite the town.

Maybe so. But given the poor performance by Symphony management and board over the past 10 years, the SSO will have to provide more specifics to be believable in these promises.


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