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The ASO performing in happier days.

If the contract is ratified by both sides, the ASO season could begin next week.

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra musicians and Woodruff Arts Center’s management have reached a tentative agreement in their long and vitriolic labor dispute.

The U.S. Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS) confirmed late Friday afternoon what ArtsATL first reported this morning: that negotiators representing the musicians and management struck a potential deal after bargaining Wednesday and Thursday. The agreement now requires approval of the full union membership and the governing board of the Woodruff Arts Center.

“These have been difficult times for many arts organizations nationwide,” Allison Beck, acting director of the FMCS, said in a statement. “The parties have been faced with complex issues and some very tough choices, which they were dedicated to resolving. Thanks to their efforts, the multi-Grammy Award–winning Atlanta Symphony may be able to soon resume the orchestra’s season.  This . . . will help ensure the continuing viability of one of the premier cultural institutions of the South.”

According to a source among the musicians, the players gathered at 10 a.m. today for an informational meeting on the proposed contract, which commits to bolstering the size of the ensemble over the next four years. They will have 24 hours to vote.

The players, who have been locked out without pay for more than two months, were asked to vote on whether to adopt a new four-year contract that ensures no wage cuts, a modest increase in health care and a gradual increase in the size of the orchestra to 88 musicians. 

If the musicians agree to ratify the new collective bargaining agreement — negotiated for the two sides through federal mediation — they could end one of the most protracted and bitter lockouts in ASO history. The musicians were also locked out in 2012, which ended with the musicians accepting a substantial wage reduction as well as a reduction in the size of the orchestra from 95 to 88.

The federal mediation process requires that neither side speaks to the media. Randy Donaldson, a WAC spokesman, would not confirm details Friday morning. “If and when there’s an agreement, approvals would be required on both sides,” he said. Reached Friday afternoon, Donaldson deferred to the statement by Beck.

Daniel Laufer, associate principal cello and a negotiator for the ASO Players’ Association, predicted in an email that some musicians may want to take the entire 24-hour period before voting on the proposal. “Many people are going to need time to sleep on it,” Laufer said. “What [the musicians have] been put through in two years with lockouts has really hurt this orchestra in many ways and there are many emotions tied to that.”

Throughout negotiations, the major point of contention between the two sides has been the size of the orchestra. The musicians have been determined to shore up the ensemble, which now stands at 76 after a wave of retirements and departures to other orchestras. Management, in turn, had steadfastly refused to commit to any fixed number of musicians — a move that would break with standard orchestral practice across the nation — countering that the musicians needed to be “flexible” as the orchestra struggles with a $2 million annual deficit.

Over the last two days of negotiations with Richard Giacolone, a mediator with the FMCS, representatives of the ASO’s parent company, the Woodruff Arts Center, backed off its position and committed to building the orchestra back up to 88 musicians by the end of the fourth year.

While management’s new proposal may not be what musicians ultimately hoped for — it stops short of restoring the orchestra’s size or pay to pre-2012 levels — it is a significant conciliatory move. During the last mediation effort, two weeks ago, management would commit only to maintaining the size of the orchestra at its current level of 76 for the next four years. This, the musicians argued, was not enough. They called for management to agree to build up the ensemble, arguing that without such a commitment they would diminish ASO’s standing as a world-class orchestra and set a dangerous precedent for other orchestras across the nation.

Locked out ASO musicians picket in front of a sign advertising shows that may not take place. (Photo by Mark Gresham)

Locked out ASO musicians picket in front of a sign advertising shows that may not take place. (Photo by Mark Gresham)

“If there’s actually a fixed number in the contract — and it’s a bigger number than the current complement of 76 — that’s a substantial achievement,” said Kevin Case, an arts labor lawyer based in Chicago who has closely followed the ASO lockout. Case stressed that 88 is still a drop from the symphony’s 2012 level of 95 musicians. “If you look at the broader picture, it’s still a significant overall loss of positions, but it’s certainly a lot better than what it is now. The important thing is that there be a fixed number in the contract that is a solid requirement and that it be a large enough number for the members of the orchestra to function well.”

Some of the orchestra’s supporters expressed mixed feelings upon hearing that the two sides might be on the verge of an agreement, saying the lockout has left wounds. Nick Jones, retired program annotator for the ASO and a member of the ASO chorus, said he was surprised, yet cautiously optimistic.

“I’m delighted if we can start concerts again and employ musicians, but it’s going to be a very long time before folks trust management again,” he said. “They have shown themselves callously insensitive to what it takes to make a great arts organization.”

If the musicians agree to the latest proposal, the orchestra’s 70th anniversary season, which was originally set to begin on September 25, will instead open on November 13. The musicians and its chorus are unlikely to perform their scheduled piece, “A Sea Symphony” by Vaughan Williams, given the lack of rehearsal time. Instead, they have been rehearsing Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 9.”

While there is a strong sense of relief at the prospect of ending the lockout, significant challenges lie ahead. During the first month of the lockout, negotiations were so rancorous that ASO president and CEO Stanley Romanstein resigned, saying his leadership would be “an impediment to our reaching a new labor agreement.” The musicians then honed their wrath on its parent company, repeatedly accusing WAC of financial mismanagement and firing off angry press releases that claimed it was choosing to “handcuff” the ASO and blatantly attempting to complete the orchestra’s “permanent diminution and destruction.”

If the two sides come to an agreement, they will have to work together to improve morale, recruit new musicians, revive dwindling ticket sales and fundraising, and reduce the orchestra’s deficit. During the last round of negotiations, Tom Kilpatrick, WAC’s attorney and lead negotiator, assured musicians that management would begin to undertake a major fundraising campaign to create endowed chairs in an attempt to build the orchestra up to 90 players.

Many of the ASO’s musicians are dispersed around the country. Since the lockout, leading orchestras such as the New York Philharmonic, the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C., and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra have offered the locked-out ASO players part-time gigs to supplement their income. The ASO’s principal flute, Christina Smith, has just ended a European tour with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

“Now begins the task of calling all our musicians home — the ones that have been playing with this orchestra and that orchestra around the country,” said Jones. “The orchestra has already been partly dismantled and it’s going to be quite a struggle to build it back.”

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