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Romanstein says the ASO's deficit has largely been erased, but more belt-tightening is still needed.

News: With a $2.4 million disparity, fears resonate the ASO lockout could be for the long haul

Romanstein says the ASO's deficit has largely been erased, but more belt-tightening is still needed.
With the symphony stage empty, Romanstein is concerned the lockout could be “a long and bitter struggle.”

For the second time in as many years, musicians with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra were locked out of Symphony Hall at midnight Saturday after failing to agree with management on the terms of a new collective bargaining agreement.

After eight months of negotiations, the gulf between the two sides remains wide, with management claiming a $2.4 million discrepancy proposals. While management describes the ASO’s current financial position as “unsustainable,” musicians are resisting cuts that they say will cause irreparable damage to the orchestra.

“We’re all concerned about continuing to advance the quality of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra,” ASO president and CEO Stanley E. Romanstein told ArtsATL in his first postlockout interview. Still, he said, “it would be irresponsible for us financially to pledge ourselves and to commit ourselves to a contract that we know we simply can’t afford.” Romanstein said he had reached out this morning to musicians to continue negotiations.

For musicians, who had hoped to avoid a labor dispute and enter “play and talk” negotiations, the mood is heavy. They now find themselves locked out of symphony facilities with their pay terminated and their health care benefits set to expire at the end of September.

Players' association president, and ASO violist, Paul Murphy.
Players’ Association president and ASO violist Paul Murphy.

“This is an attempt to forever deprive the orchestra of its ability to function in the first league of orchestras,” said Paul Murphy, associate principal violist and president of the Players’ Association, in a statement issued just after midnight. He noted that management had refused repeated overtures from the musicians to meet during the final hours before the contract expired. “The Woodruff Arts Center [ASO’s parent company] has not demonstrated through their actions an understanding in the last two years of what is required to sustain a great American orchestra.”

In a telephone interview, WAC president and CEO Virginia Hepner said she understood musicians’ frustration. “We love the arts, but the reality that we’re all in is that we are faced with industry challenges,” she said. “None of us deny the sacrifices the musicians made two years ago. We’re simply asking them to accept greater flexibility in how we approach the solution.”

The ASO’s poor financial health has had a negative impact on the WAC’s bottom line. Last year, Moody’s Investors Service, the credit rating agency, changed WAC’s rating outlook from stable to negative, largely on the basis of the symphony’s financial predicament.

“The negative outlook is primarily based on the ongoing deficit operations of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, a division that comprised 31 percent of operating expenses in fiscal 2013,” the report said.

One of the main sources of contention in negotiations is musician pay. Musicians want to increase annual pay by an average 3.6 percent — an attempt to offset the impact of the 15 percent cut they accepted in 2012 — while management has proposed an average increase of 1.25 percent.

“There’s been a lot of talk of us cutting musicians salaries, but the truth is we’ve put salary increases on the table,” Romanstein said. “Yes, they are modest, but it is what we can afford in order to be responsible. The only thing we’ve asked is that we pursue a very flexible and strategic approach to how we balance art and finance, so we can commit to both.”

The WAC's Viriginia Hepner.
The WAC’s Virginia Hepner.

Musicians, however, note that even under their own proposal, their pay would be less in 2018 than it was in 2012. Two years ago, the cost of musicians’ total compensation package was $12.2 million; musicians are proposing it would be $11.6 million in four years.

The Players’ Association also argues that the pay increase offered by management will be offset by increased health-care costs. Currently, all musicians contribute $520 a year to their health care; they’re willing to double that figure for all musicians. Management is proposing an increase to $1,180 for individuals and $4,729 for families.

Both sides also disagree on the size of the orchestra: musicians want to up the number of players from 88 to 89 by the fourth year; management has refused to commit to any fixed number at all.

Romanstein said he understands the terms are less than ideal, but suggested that many of the musicians’ claims are overblown. “I don’t think there’s a cause for alarm if we ask musicians to pay more for health care for their families, and call for a creative approach in how we fill vacancies,” he said. “I don’t think that automatically diminishes the quality of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.”

With the health-care market so volatile right now, Romanstein said, entering into a five-year guaranteed freeze at $20 a week would be “incredibly irresponsible.” Although he conceded that the terms of the ASO contract were different to those of others around the country, he said that every orchestra had to deal with its own financial constraints.

“The thing that we have heard from the community — from the individual donors, foundations and corporate donors — is that they love this orchestra, they love the music this orchestra creates for us all,” he said. “They want to make sure we’re sustainable for the long-run and that we are behaving in a financially stable manner.”

Musicians, in turn, claim that the cuts only seem to diminish the product. Already, an unusually high number of musicians have parted ways with the orchestra, either to retire or to take on positions with other companies. Three senior members retired in 2012, one in 2013, and four more retired this summer.

According to a statement from the ASO Players’ Association, management has proposed to spend $3.75 million to further reduce the orchestra’s size through a voluntary retirement incentive, rather than apply such funding toward an agreement that would fund musicians’ proposed pay increases. 

“At this point, our mood is unanimously united and empowered,” said Christina Smith, principal flautist and a member of Players’ Association’s negotiating committee. According to Smith, musicians felt compelled to take a stand after enduring heavy cuts in 2012, which they understood as a one-time concession. “The orchestra will not stand to be marginalized anymore.”

After being silent during the 2012 lockout, Spano wrote an open letter last week.
After being silent during the 2012 lockout, Spano wrote an open letter last week.

The extent of the disagreement between management and musicians is much deeper than it was two years ago. 

After standing silent in 2012, music director Robert Spano — along with principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles — authored a letter last week that urged musicians and management to work together to avert a lockout and voiced concern for the artistic integrity of the orchestra.

“The ASO is a jewel, which should not be lost or compromised, and the current conditions threaten that loss,“ Spano and Runnicles cautioned. “There are artistic lines that cannot and must not be crossed . . . The concept that stopping the music — whether characterized as lockout or strike — as a reasonable alternative is unfathomable, deeply divisive, and would be a tragic mistake.”

Much of the current bitterness from musicians stems from the 2012 dispute, when they were locked out of symphony facilities for a month without pay and health-care benefits. Management eventually forced musicians to accept a $14,000 annual cut in salary, dropped the number of full-time musicians from 95 to 88 and reduced the season from 52 to 42 weeks. 

Musicians said they agreed to such concessions with the understanding that they were one-time cuts and that management would steer the company to a more financially sustainable position.

While the majority of orchestras around the country usually manage to work out some kind of concessionary middle ground before deadline, orchestras that have struggled to reach agreement in recent months have entered “play and talk” scenarios.

Most notably, when musicians at the New York Metropolitan Opera, the nation’s largest performing arts company, resisted management plans to cut their wages by 17 percent, management averted a lockout by extending its deadline and bringing in independent financial experts to scrutinize the company’s finances. It eventually struck a deal with musicians that led to an immediate 3.5 percent pay cut, followed by an equivalent cut in six months.

In the last few months, the San Francisco Opera and the Nashville Symphony have also kept on playing as they struggle to reach agreement past their contract deadlines.

Asked why the ASO had chosen to lock musicians out, rather than engage in “play and talk,” Romanstein responded, “We’ve already had a lot of time.” He also noted that management had proposed the use of a federal mediator — an approach used with relative success this summer by the New York Metropolitan Opera — but he said musicians had yet to respond.

Romanstein said he hopes to resolve the situation before the opening night of the orchestra’s 70th anniversary season. Earlier in the week, however, he wrote a letter to colleagues that was leaked to the Atlanta Business Chronicle, admitting his “fear that we are in for a long and bitter struggle.”

The opening of the orchestra's 70th season is threatened. (Photo by Jeff Roffman)
The opening of the orchestra’s 70th season is threatened. (Photo by Jeff Roffman)

Drew McManus, a Chicago-based arts blogger and consultant and author of the Adaptistration blog, said that he wouldn’t be surprised if the Atlanta dispute followed Minneapolis, where members of the Minnesota Orchestra were locked out for 16 months. Musicians returned to work last January after the longest work stoppage in U.S. orchestral history. “There’s no way around the fact Atlanta musicians caved the first time around,” McManus said. “This time around, the musicians may have taken last the two years to build a war chest and are more willing to withstand and fight for a longer period of time.”

Michael Kurth, a double bassist who joined the orchestra in 1994, said he is fully prepared for a work stoppage although he is hopeful that one will be avoided. Over the summer, he said, he’s taken on more individual tutoring and coaching, and his family has gone through a lot of belt-tightening with the understanding that management might lock musicians out. “We’ve been resetting the thermostats,” he said. “Let’s just say I’m grateful my teenage daughters don’t mind shopping at thrift stores.”

For Kurth, the dispute is not just about his individual contract. It’s about his pride in the Grammy Award–winning orchestra and his concern about the future of classical music in Atlanta. “It worries me that the stewards of classical music are so willing to sacrifice quality for the bottom line,” he said. “What if the Atlanta Falcons decided not to replace their running back if he went down with an injury? Would they field a team with fewer than 11 players? Why would anyone pay to see a team that wasn’t the best it could be?”