BSO musicians protest as lockout begins, prompted by collapsed negotiations

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Still via video from Baltimore Symphony Musicians/Twitter

Members of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra showed up at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall Monday morning with their parking passes disabled, unable to access the building without scheduling an appointment with management.

So, instead of walking in ready to work, the players grabbed picket signs, demanding BSO management relent on plans to cut roughly 20 percent of the professional ensemble’s schedule, as well as the musicians’ salaries and benefits, this summer.

“Public pressure is absolutely one of the most important things right now,” said Brian Prechtl, a percussionist for the BSO and co-chairman of the Players Committee of the Baltimore Symphony Musicians, which represents the players. “They need to relent from cutting off our salaries and our health care so that we can negotiate in good faith. These kinds of scare tactics and undue pressure are coercive.”

On Sunday evening, BSO management announced it had approved a lockout after announcing negotiations on a new contract had crumbled. The musicians have been playing without a contract since September 2018.

“Due to the Baltimore Symphony’s urgent need to address longstanding financial issues and change its business model, the BSO has made this extremely difficult decision,” BSO president and CEO Peter Kjome said in a statement.

The organization announced in late May that it would commit to a move musicians have been trying to stave off, slicing the concert calendar from 52 weeks to 40 weeks. Musicians won’t be paid or have health insurance and other benefits during those 12 weeks.

Kjome attributed the move to financial bleeding of $16 million in total over the last decade.

A recent Baltimore Sun dig into the orchestra’s finances and other documents found fundraising has lagged significantly compared to projections for years. The organization is finishing this fiscal year at a $1.5 million deficit, and leaders now await the results of an audit, expected within weeks, determining whether the institution is a “going concern,” a potential existential threat to the BSO’s future.

The Maryland General Assembly this spring approved $1.6 million in funds to help the orchestra out, but Gov. Larry Hogan has held the money—and has indicated he doesn’t plan to release it—because the BSO has already received other state assistance.

Thousands of people have appealed to Hogan to reconsider.

Prechtl and Greg Mulligan, who’s also co-chair of the Players Committee of the Baltimore Symphony Musicians, said despite those pressing financial concerns, the BSO is sitting on an existing endowment and doesn’t need to resort to cutting off employees’ health care and salaries.

Prechtl said in reducing their pay, the orchestra is passing on the burden for its financial mismanagement to the musicians. “We will be the ones that are ponying up for their overspending.”

Prechtl noted the appropriations bill that the General Assembly passed, HB 1404, included language mandating the formation of a workgroup to “examine structural efficiencies” of the BSO and recommend ways to fix finances and broaden the orchestra’s audience and statewide appeal.

Moving forward, convening that workgroup would be a “constructive” place to start, he said.

BSO management and the musicians’ union, Local 40-453, are due to return to the negotiating table on Friday. But in the meantime, Prechtl said the musicians are seeking a commitment.

“The management needs to back off of this coercive tactic of cutting off our salaries and health care. Those [concessions] would change things dramatically, and then we could have a reasonable discussion.”

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Ethan McLeod

Senior Editor at Baltimore Fishbowl
Ethan has been editing and reporting for Baltimore Fishbowl since fall of 2016. His previous stops include Fox 45, CQ Researcher and Connection Newspapers in Virginia. His freelance writing has been featured in CityLab, Slate, Baltimore City Paper, DCist and elsewhere.
Ethan McLeod
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