Seattle Symphony Players Ratify Contract Feb 14, 2010

by Tom Dziekonski

Following intense negotiations that stretched out over 10 months, the musicians of the Seattle Symphony approved a new 2-1/2 year contract on Feb 14th, 2010.

Faced with a substantial financial deficit, the Symphony management sought two things: To get immediate financial relief and to draw up a 5-year contract to achieve a balanced budget.

Negotiations began in March of 2009. After several months of discussions, management called off negotiations. When talks resumed in August, the management had acquired as lead negotiator and consultant attorney Ralph Craviso. Craviso had negotiated for the management of the Philadelphia Orchestra when the musicians went on strike there in 1996, and he had a somewhat adversarial reputation among musicians. Attorney Ron Knox was legal counsel for the Symphony musicians. Management asked for a pay cut of 10% which would increase incrementally over 5 years but would not reach the pay scale of the 2008-9 season. But a 5-year contract made little sense to the musicians because the executive director had resigned and music director Gerard Schwarz had also announced his upcoming departure.

Even working with a federal mediator, committee member Jeffrey Fair termed the hundreds of hours of bargaining as “fruitless”. Management had offers ready, numbers prepared, and discussion made no difference. In December, the musicians voted unanimously to reject management’s “last, best and final” offer.

At the end of January 2010, the musicians invited Phoenix attorney Susan Martin to come up for a one day “interview/consultancy”. She had previously negotiated for the musicians of the Philadelphia, Boston and Baltimore orchestras. She was then asked to remain an additional 4 days. During the final 72 hours, on 8 hours of sleep, with about one minute to spare before an official strike deadline, an agreement was reached.

A creative part of the new contract is the “Musicians’ 2010 Challenge”. The musicians collectively donated $168,840, equaling $2010 per musician, to help kick-start a fundraiser for the orchestra. The funds come from the players’ reserve account to which they have voluntarily contributed a portion of their salary, their “collective savings account”. The musicians’ contribution was immediately matched by the Benaroyas and members of the board, with hopes that it might be further leveraged to raise additional funds. The $168,840 represented approximately one half of the 10% cut that management sought but immediately gave management the financial relief it sought.

The contract itself grants management a 5% pay cut until September 1, 2010, which amounts to a 2.1% cut for the season. By January of 2011, the wage scale will have returned to the early 2009 level, increasing again in September 2011. On January 1, 2012, there is an option to boost the wage another 1.9% or to end the contract. There are some concessions in health benefit costs, but there are caps on musicians’ exposure to increases. Extra musicians will take a 10% pay cut for the remainder of the current season and then revert to the prior wage scale. Because only the contracted members of the SSOPO make contributions to the players’ reserve fund through higher fees, this approach seemed equitable for all players performing with the Symphony. And there were some positive improvements in the contract. With 9 vacancies currently in the orchestra, management agreed to hold auditions during this and the following season to bring down the total number of vacancies to no more than six. There was also an adjustment made in the service credit tabulation in favor of the musicians.

In terms of preserving and improving the quality of the Seattle Symphony, the musicians focused their efforts on three main areas: compensation, vacancies, and board participation. First, the musicians fought to maintain an appropriate level of compensation, so that the Seattle Symphony could continue to attract and retain excellent musicians. As stated above, vacancies are capped at six for the duration of the contract. The management had repeatedly said that it needed to indefinitely hold unlimited positions vacant. Lastly, the musicians were able to codify participation in board activities such as Music Director selection, Executive Director selection, and Finance Committee activities.

Regarding the Guild/SSOPO structure and its impact on the negotiations, Fair cited as particularly vital the ability of the orchestra to have total financial control and to be able to hire any negotiator or counsel it may choose. During this negotiation, the strength of unanimity within the organization was also paramount. One concern that arose was how a strike may have been risky without a large national organization. But in the end, as seen in other industries such as autos, unwieldy size can carry its own share of unforeseen risks.

Legal counsel cost approximately $150,000 for the musicians.

Members of the Negotiating Committee were David Gordon (trumpet), Jeffrey Fair (horn), Xiao-Po Fei (violin), Jennifer Godfrey (bass) and Seth Krimsky (bassoon). Also participating were Timothy Hale (viola, orchestra committee chair), Zart Dombourian-Eby (flute/piccolo) and David Sabee (cello). Sabee, Hale and Timothy Garland (violin) worked on the players’ website, media and public relations.