Updated: Atlanta Symphony musicians, management out of tune over mediation

No news in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra lockout since federal mediators restarted negotiations apparently should not be taken as good news.

Ending a rare period of quiet in the discordant stalemate, musicians emailed a plea for help to ASO board members on Wednesday night. It suggested that negotiators for the orchestra’s administration and its parent nonprofit, the Wooodruff Arts Center, are using delaying tactics since talks resumed on Oct. 7.

The email said that the two sides have met only twice since Allison Beck, acting director of the U.S. Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS), restarted negotiations and that management asked for a “pause” after the second session, on Oct. 8, with no additional negotiating sessions scheduled.

“We have not heard from the WAC about the results of the ‘pause’ they sought in the mediation process,” representatives of the ASO Players’ Association (ASOPA) wrote, “but clearly, once again, they arrived at the table with neither proposals nor the ability to authorize a deal.”

The musicians praised the efforts of Beck and her associate, FMCS mediator Richard Giacolone, but said their hands are tied unless the Woodruff negotiating team “avails itself of the opportunity to stop wasting precious time and truly work to get the ASO back in its place.”

The two sides have agreed on little since the lockout began Sept. 7, so it was not a surprise that ASO negotiators offered a different interpretation on the sequence of the mediated talks.

Alston & Bird attorney J. Thomas Kilpatrick, the ASO/Woodruff’s chief negotiator, emailed a detailed accounting of recent developments to ASO board members late Thursday afternoon.

Kilpatrick said that after “extensive discussions” with the mediators on Oct. 7 and 8, the negotiation teams adjourned to update and add to their original proposals. “In the words of the mediators, it was time to put some of the shared ideas ‘on paper,’” Kilpatrick wrote. “This was precisely what ASOPA had asked us to do — make new proposals to show our good faith.”

The attorney said he called the mediators on Monday with an offer for the sides to meet on Wednesday, then Giacolone notified him on Tuesday “that the union was not available for a meeting this week.” With Beck out of the country next week, Kilpatrick recounted that Giacolone confirmed on Wednesday that he will lead negotiating sessions next Tuesday through Thursday.

“We look forward to meeting next week and are prepared to continue to bargain in good faith,” Kilpatrick wrote.

The musicians, now in the sixth week of a lockout that began when the two sides could not reach accord as their 2012 collective bargaining agreement expired, declined comment on Thursday, saying they were honoring a “news blackout” requested by the mediators.

The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service had no comment Thursday in response to the conflicting emails. “Mediators are subject to stringent confidentiality requirements,” FMCS spokesman John Arnold said.

At issue after nine months of strained negotiations are musician pay and benefits and a push by management to have power over the size of the orchestra, which was cut from 95 to 88 full-time musicians in the 2012 negotiations. Management is seeking to halt 12 consecutive years of ASO red ink, including a $2 million deficit last year. The musicians charge Woodruff leaders with broad mismanagement that has caused its negotiators to demand further concessions.


> The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra has racked up deficits for 12 consecutive years, but the push toward a sustainable model took new urgency when the accumulated debt rose to $23 million by the end of fiscal 2012, including $18 million borrowed against earnings on the orchestra's endowment.

> Seeking significant concessions to halt the red ink, management locked out the musicians during tense 2012 collective bargaining agreement negotiations. After a month without pay, the players agreed with great rancor to a $5.2 million wage reduction over two years (an average of $14,000 annually for each) and other cuts including one that reduced the orchestra's size from 95 to 88 full-time musicians.

> In 2013, Moody's Investors Service downgraded the Woodruff's credit outlook from stable to negative, largely because of the ASO debt.

> The orchestra finished the 2014 fiscal year with a $2 million operating deficit on a budget of $37 million.

> Eight months of negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement this year proved unsuccessful. Management said its final proposal was for a four-year deal with an escalating salary increase topping out at 4.5 percent in the final year. The musicians proposed a roughly 15 percent salary increase over four years --- basically the amount the players gave up 2012. Another point of division was health care, with the musicians being asked to shoulder a greater share of the cost, which they said would turn management's raise offer into a net decrease.

> Management locked out the players Sept. 7 after the collective bargaining agreement expired without a new one in place, and canceled concerts through Nov. 8. Four days later, the ASO Players' Association issued a statement that charged: "The Symphony has been placed in the position of turning deficits that have been engineered by the WAC with the intention and for the purpose of extracting more concessions from the Orchestra's musicians."

> ASO President and CEO Stanley Romanstein resigned Sept. 29, saying in a statement that he didn't want to be an "impediment" to management reaching a labor agreement with ASO musicians.

> U.S. Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service Acting Director Allison Beck restarted negotiations, for the first time since the lockout began, on Oct. 7.


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