With only days to go before a concert previewing the fall season, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and musicians are no closer to a new contract following a summer-long labor dispute that included the cancellation of concerts, a lockout and a bitter back-and-forth in the media.
In a series of competing news releases put out Monday evening and early Tuesday morning, the two sides appeared to be at an impasse. Management said it offered for the musicians to return to work under the terms of the last agreement, with a commitment of no additional labor strife through the end of the calendar year.
The Baltimore Symphony Musicians, a group representing the players, countered that management gave its “‘take it or leave it’ offer” last night and rejected a proposal by federal mediators to extend negotiations until Thursday. The musicians pledged to keep the BSO as a year-round institution, the battle at the heart of the labor dispute.
Since last October, BSO President and CEO Peter Kjome has called for reducing the band’s calendar from 52 weeks to 40 weeks, pointing to losses of $16 million over the last decade.
“The musicians will continue the fight to preserve our 103-year old institution, which serves the City of Baltimore, the surrounding counties and the State of Maryland,” the group said in a statement. “We stand ready and willing to get back to the negotiating table to achieve an agreement that will enable us to continue to attract and retain the highest quality musicians to perform for our audiences.”
The lockout was lifted by management on Sept. 9. Local 40-543 of the American Federation of Musicians, the union representing the players, argued in an unfair labor practice charge filed with the National Labor Relations Board that the organization has not bargained in good faith and that the lockout has unlawfully forced the terms and conditions of a new deal onto the players.
For its part, management said its most recent one-year contract offer raised weekly pay, provided a donor-supported $1.3 million fund to compensate musicians during the summer, committed to hiring more musicians and created a board to outline a plan for the future of the institution.
Kjome said in a statement, “We urge our musicians to accept the offer of our Board and management in which we worked to address concerns about compensation and benefits, and the size of the Orchestra, while helping us to move forward together.”
In response to the unfair labor practice charge, Kjome said, “The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is committed to continuing to bargain in good faith with our musicians and we hope that we can come to a resolution soon.”
But the sticking point of schedule cuts remains.
During the stand-off, the BSO released an audit this summer that showed a drop in donations and recurring deficits created “substantial doubt regarding the Symphony’s ability to continue as a going concern.”
“This announcement makes it more clear than ever that we must ensure a sustainable business model that helps control costs while expanding revenues,” Kjome said in a release about the audit. “It is vital that we move forward together toward a stable future.”
The musicians have argued the BSO’s reputation would only be hurt by cutting the schedule, and that the group has already made sacrifices both in their ranks and salary.
“If we were to accept these cuts, it would be a significant downgrade of our orchestra that Maryland and Baltimore deserve, and can afford,” violinist Greg Mulligan told Baltimore Fishbowl in January, shortly after the most recent contract expired. The players are “very proud” of the BSO’s status as one of the remaining year-round orchestras, he added.
Performances continued on under the terms of the old agreement, but both sides were unable to come to terms on a new contract throughout negotiations in the winter and spring. Management abruptly canceled the summer concert season in late May and locked the musicians out in June. Talks have continued since, but with little progress.
The sides were, however, able to hammer out an extension of healthcare and other benefits for the musicians during the summer months when they weren’t receiving a paycheck, an olive branch that was made possible with a gift from several donors, including members of the orchestra’s board of directors.
Management said yesterday that if the musicians do not return to work this week, they’ll have to seek health insurance through COBRA.
Baltimore Symphony Musicians has organized protests outside the Meyerhoff to garner public support for its cause, which continued today with a silent march by members all dressed in black.
The fall season is scheduled to begin Sept. 14 with a Season Preview Concert at the Meyerhoff.