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A bad settlement in Atlanta

0 Robert Levine

The musicians of the Atlanta Symphony voted to ratify a tentative settlement that was pretty much what ASO management (or perhaps the Woodruff Center) wanted all along:

Symphony Orchestra accepted a new collective bargaining agreement Wednesday, barely averting a postponement of the fall season. The deal will cost players $5.2 million in compensation over two years, change their pay structure, and cut their numbers significantly.

In return, ASO President Stanley Romanstein and a handful of other top ASO executives will forfeit 6 percent of their collective salaries.

The agreement clears the way for the 2012-2013 season to open on time Oct. 4. But the musicians – who claim that the cuts demanded by ASO management will set the orchestra back decades — made it clear that they are far from satisfied. That raises the question of how the symphony, regarded as one of the best in the country, will repair itself.

“The musicians … have agreed to these deep concessions for one reason alone, and that is to do what they do best: continue to play great music for their public at an extraordinarily high level,” the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Players Association wrote in a scathing news release Wednesday night.

“Scathing” actually understates the case; I don’t think I’ve ever seen a post-settlement statement from either side quite like what the musicians released (so far, there’s been nothing from management, which is one wise move more than they’ve made to date during this negotiation). The rage is palpable:

Those charged with overseeing the ASO have done historic damage to the future of the Orchestra by insisting on an arbitrary “musicians’ share” of $5.2 million. They have set the ASO back over 31 years in work weeks for the musicians and over 10 years in musicians’ compensation, not even taking inflation into account. This will make it all the more challenging to retain and continue to attract the talent that has brought international acclaim and national prominence to Atlanta’s Grammy award-winning ensemble.

The musicians’ costs were a mere 28% of the total ASO budget in recent years, a figure which will now drop to 24%. Yet the musicians will now produce the vast majority of the savings demanded by the ASO and the WAC, absorbing 17% and 14% individual pay cuts in the two years of the agreement. The number of musicians will drop from 95 to 88, a figure that is almost eclipsed by the current ASO administrative staff of 74. The season will be reduced from 52  to 41 weeks in 2012-13 and 42 weeks in 2013-14. The musicians also agreed to shoulder part of their health insurance premiums, and to increased flexibility in working conditions, allowing ASO management to utilize the orchestra in smaller ensembles simultaneously.

When the ASO was last the size and season length it is being reduced to now, the administrative staff was smaller than 15.  The musicians are not, and have never been, the cause of financial problems at the ASO, and in light of these agonizing cuts cannot be cited as such in the future. Their world-class performance is in stark contrast to that of the ASO’s leadership, both current and past. Management must be held accountable for under-performance at nearly every level for the past decade. For example, the operations of the ASO’s expensive summer venues, Chastain Park and Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre (where the musicians will hardly play in the future) have repeatedly failed to meet revenue projections. These failures account for a huge proportion of the ASO’s recent deficits.  The ASO and WAC boards and the public must demand serious results from management — results that will begin rebuilding the ASO to major-league status.

It is quite remarkable that a major orchestral institution is going to be paying only 24% of its expenses to the people who actually are the product. The musicians are right to raise questions about the summer venues, especially in light of the elimination of the summer season. Some very bad decisions were made in Atlanta, and the people who made them are not the one who are going to pay the price.

A fundamental weakness of the American non-profit model is the lack of accountability of boards of directors, and I have no idea what the solution might be that would not simultaneously discourage volunteers from serving on boards. The practice of having a handful of musicians serving on boards and committees common to many American orchestras does not seem to have helped. Perhaps it could, but only with far more support and training provided to those representatives by their union. (Of course, non-musician board members generally need that support and training as well and don’t get it either.)

In the meantime, perhaps it’s time for musicians to think about steps to take regarding their managements and boards to make sure that they realize that this kind of scorched-earth bargaining has long-term costs. Good labor relations are based on respect, and that involves the recognition by both parties that actions have consequences, including consequences to how well the parties work together in the future.

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