Eleventh hour negotiations fail

Between contract negotiations, musicians are locked out and the ISO is at a stand-still.

Downtown’s Hilbert Circle Theatre will be remarkably quiet this weekend and next.

The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra has cancelled its first two weeks of performances due to a failure to reach a new contract agreement between ISO management and the musicians’ union last Friday.

Like most major American orchestras, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra is in financially dire straits.

The previous contract expired the first weekend of September, and both sides have presented new proposals aimed at maintaining  high musical standards while also addressing the financial instability of the orchestra.

ISO operational management, formally known as Indiana Symphony Society, LLC, and representatives of the American Federation of Musicians, Local No. 3, met on  Thursday and Friday to try to create compromise in order to save the first weeks of performances.

Jessica Di Santo, director of communications for the ISO, declined to comment on behalf of the management while the negotiations are ongoing.

“The gap between what the musicians’ union is proposing and what is essential to economically sustain the ISO’s future is just too great,” management said in a press release.

The musicians’ proposal for a short-term contract would have preserved the first two weeks of the season, with the musicians making $1,250 a week.

According to a press release by the musician’s union, the extension would have cost the Indiana Symphony Society less than $30,000 over the two-week period. The Society declined the offer.

“The union’s proposed extension would only exacerbate the ISO’s already difficult financial challenges,” the Society said in its release.

ISO musicians also declined to comment over the weekend.

The orchestra management’s figures paint a grim picture: credit maxed out at $8 million, the  endowment down 37 percent from where it was in 2007 and $1.7 million in expenses not made up in revenue last year.

“We must take immediate steps to bring expenses in line with operating income, and we must continue our efforts to increase performance income and donations,”  management said on ISO’s website. “We also must meet our obligation to fully fund our musicians’ pensions.”

To reduce expenses, the ISO management has proposed shortening the orchestra’s season from 45.5 weeks to 38 weeks,  slowly decreasing—as musicians retire and leave—the size of the orchestra  from 82 full-time, full-benefits musicians to 69, reducing the amount of paid time off and freezing the accruals of the defined benefit pension plan while starting a 3 percent matching contribution in a 403(b) plan.

In essence, the management would stop investing in the current retirement plan and begin investing in the new plan.

A 403(b) plan is a tax-deferred plan for non-profit organizations.

For the ISO’s classical concerts—about half of the performance season—the orchestra would audition and hire musicians on a contractual basis.

While the down economy has affected music ensembles for years, shock waves swept orchestras last April when The Philadelphia Orchestra filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

The Philadelphia Orchestra—which with Cleveland, New York, Boston and Chicago makes up the American “Big Five” orchestras—is only now beginning to operate outside of the bankruptcy code.

In an email sent to JCA faculty and obtained by The Collegian, a member of the orchestra said the executive committee of the ISO’s board was exaggerating the financial situation.

“The musicians are convinced the management’s actions will ruin a world-class orchestra, dilute the quality and wreck what took decades to build,” the musician said.

Richard Graef, a horn player for the ISO and the chairman of the musician’s negotiating committee, told the Indianapolis Star that with the management’s plan, “musicians will leave—quickly if they can. We won’t be able to attract new talent.”

Musicians are also concerned that replacing permanent players with temporary players would reduce the camaraderie of the orchestra.

The musicians’ proposal involves voluntary pay cuts for the first year of the contract, as well as 14 weeks of unpaid furlough over the next five years.

Basically, the orchestra and management cut a total of 14 weeks over the next five years, but after the first year, the number of weeks cut each year remains flexible.

The musicians’ union said its proposal will save the ISO $3.2 million, according to the Indianapolis Star, while maintaining a full season and a full orchestra.

Management has said that this plan will not close the annual budget gap and will continue to draw upon the stressed endowment.

What happens here in Indianapolis will likely have a huge impact on other orchestras in the United States.

The Minnesota Orchestra management is currently in negotiations with its musicians and is seeking to make broad changes and cuts, including a 34-percent decrease in musician salary, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Its contract expires on Sept. 30, according to the Pioneer Press.

The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra also faces a contract expiration deadline of Sept. 30.

Musicians in St. Paul told the Minnesota Public Radio that musicians might lose half their salaries in the negotiations, and some are already leaving for other orchestras.

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra musicians are currently locked out due to an impasse in negotiations, according to a release on the orchestra’s website.

The management of the ASO said it is considering changing season lengths, the number of the salaried musicians, the weekly pay scale and benefits packages.

It is also considering canceling its first performances, scheduled for early October.

The ISO musicians’ union has proposed 15 dates in September and early November to continue negotiations. While the two sides continue deliberating, the fate of the five concerts scheduled before Nov. 8 and the future of Indianapolis’ 82-year-old symphony orchestra hang in the balance.

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