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Management and musicians will talk with a federal mediator next week. (Photo by Jeff Roffman)

Management and musicians will talk with a federal mediator next week. (Photo by Jeff Roffman)

Federal mediators will travel from Washington, D.C., to meet with Atlanta Symphony Orchestra management and musicians next week in the hope of negotiating a solution to their protracted labor dispute.

Allison Beck, the acting director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, who was instrumental in negotiating an agreement for the New York Metropolitan Opera, will lead the effort to work out a possible settlement. The two sides have not met since September 6, when management locked musicians out of symphony facilities after failing to come to agree on the terms of a new collective bargaining agreement.

ASO management first proposed federal mediation, and the musicians agreed this week. In a press release, the agency said the two sides will meet at an unspecified time next week. “Our mediators are aware of the public interest in the conduct of these discussions, but due to the sensitivity and complexity of these negotiations, the FMCS will have no further comment, as is the agency’s policy,” the release said.

Federal mediator Allison Beck

Federal mediator Allison Beck

Paul Murphy, president of the ASO Players’ Association, welcomed Beck’s intervention as a positive step, but said the musicians — who have been locked out without pay for four weeks now — remain anxious and are trying not to raise their hopes too much.

“We are looking forward to it and hope that it helps to bring about resolution,” Murphy said, yet he also noted that a mediator cannot impose an agreement on either side. “Both sides have to be willing to be effective. I’ve learned a lot of people expect different things from mediators and sometimes it is not always successful, but we certainly hope we will get a deal out of it.”

With a $2.4 million gap between both sides’ proposals on musicians’ pay and health care, a key obstacle to an agreement is management’s refusal to commit to any fixed plan on the size of the orchestra and health-care costs.

The company refuses to specify in the contract that the ensemble remain a certain size — a move that would break with standard national orchestra practice. While musicians seek to increase the number of players from 88 to 89 by the fourth year, management will not commit to any fixed number at all.

Management wants sole power to determine whether to replace musicians who leave, an issue that is traditionally addressed in the collective bargaining agreement. The company is also insisting on reserving the right to change musicians’ health-care plan at will rather than through the collective bargaining process.

Federal mediators have been used in labor disputes with various success across the country. This summer, Beck was effective in negotiating an agreement for the New York Metropolitan Opera. With unions resisting management plans to cut musicians’ pay by 17 percent, the Met management extended its deadline, engaging in “play and talk” with musicians as it invited Beck to mediate a four-year contract. Musicians eventually agreed to take an immediate 3.5 percent pay cut, another 3.5 percent cut in six months and then a 3 percent pay increase in the second half of the fourth year.

Last year, however, George Mitchell — the former U.S. senator from Maine who worked to broker peace in the Middle East and Northern Ireland — could not bring about a resolution between the Minnesota Orchestra and its musicians. The players, who refused to accept management’s proposal to cut base wages by nearly a third, had been locked out for more than 10 months when Mitchell intervened in July 2013. The orchestra board, however, did not accept Mitchell’s proposal.

It took 16 months — and the resignation of the ensemble’s music director, Osmo Vänskä — before the two sides came to an agreement. The eventual contract cut musicians’ pay by 15 percent from 2012 — a concession for the players, but not as much as the 30 percent to 40 percent cut that management had initially proposed.

While mediation can be a good tool in getting two sides to let go of something they’re holding on to very tightly, it is not always effective, said Kevin Case, a Chicago arts labor attorney. He noted that in ASO’s case, management and musicians do not just differ on percentage of pay, but also on structural changes to the contract.

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