Updated: Notes of discord as deadline approaches for Atlanta Symphony deal

As the 11:59 p.m. Saturday deadline in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s contract negotiations inched closer this week, management and the musicians couldn’t even agree on what they most disagreed upon.

After a Thursday bargaining session that apparently left the gulf between the two sides as wide as the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Players Association issued a statement charging that the ASO and its parent nonprofit, the Woodruff Arts Center, were demanding that the players shoulder “thousands of dollars” in concessions.

They said management had broken its promise, made when salaries and the orchestra’s size were sharply cut in 2012, to avoid a second round of reductions. And they slammed ASO President and CEO Stanley Romanstein for “catastrophic failure to reach budgeted goals,” even suggesting that he didn’t merit a recent three-year contract extension.

Randy Donaldson, a spokesman for the ASO and Woodruff, tersely responded that orchestra leadership had secured $5.5 million in corporate and anonymous donations since the last imbroglio and that, in fact, it was offering a pay increase.

Until Thursday, both sides had proceeded with diplomatic restraint, averring they didn’t want to negotiate in public, in hopes of forging a long-term deal that would allow the 70th anniversary season to open as scheduled on Sept. 25.

But restraint flew out the window after maestros Robert Spano and Donald Runnicles issued an open letter Wednesday night encouraging the sides to protect the orchestra’s “high musical standards and aspirations,” while asking that the ASO board and management “acknowledge the sacrifice the musicians have already made.”

By late Friday afternoon, the musicians had released details on a what they said was the “last, best and final” offer presented by management just that afternoon, a four-year deal with no raise in the first year then incremental ones of 1 percent to 2 percent over the final three years. The document said that increases in health care contributions “totally annihilate any of the proposed salary increases and actually mean major cuts to take-home pay.”

That was only shortly after a Thursday letter by Romanstein to unnamed “colleagues” leaked out in the Atlanta Business Chronicle in which the ASO leader revealed that the musicians were seeking a five-year contract with a 15.5 percent compensation increase over years one through four.

“Our proposal would position the ASO to operate in the black,” Romanstein wrote. “Their proposal would increase the operating deficit by at least $2.4M. Obviously, we cannot accept their proposal, and they will not accept ours. I fear that we are in for a long and bitter struggle.”

For Atlantans and industry observers, it seemed like deja vu all over again, as that great baseball orchestrator, Yogi Berra, once famously said.

Two years ago, there were several such verbal punches and counter-punches, especially after management locked out the musicians.

After a month without pay, the players angrily conceded to significant concessions: a $5.2 million wage reduction over two years (amounting to $14,000 annually per player), with the salaried season trimmed from 52 to 41 weeks in 2012-13 and 42 weeks in 2013-14. The orchestra’s ranks were thinned as well, from 95 to 88 full-time musicians.

The ASO finished the 2014 fiscal year with a $2 million operating deficit on a budget of $37 million. It was an improvement on fiscal 2013’s $2.9 million deficit and 2012’s $5 million deficit, but management termed further deficit operations unsustainable.

Deadlines have a way of forcing agreements in any labor dispute, but both sides also seemed to be steadying themselves for what would happen if Saturday’s passes without a deal.

Daniel Laufer, an ASO cellist and a member of the negotiating committee, said the musicians are open to continuing talks beyond the cutoff. “We are more than willing to have a ‘play and talk’ scenario,” he said.

ASO spokesman Donaldson said that a lockout/work stoppage is a more likely scenario if a deal is not struck.

No doubt anticipating the growing unpleasantness, ASO principal timpanist Mark Yancich made an awareness-raising appearance before Atlanta’s City Council earlier this week. Further cuts, he warned, would reduce a once nationally recognized orchestra to regional status.

“Imagine all of a sudden the Braves, Falcons or Hawks being transformed into minor league teams with reduced seasons,” Yancich said.

Chicago-based arts consultant Drew McManus, who has detailed the negotiations on his orchestra business blog Adaptistration, said that assessment is not a stretch.

“Going from 52 weeks to 41 (in the salaried season) is a very large drop,” said McManus, estimating that there are 20 orchestras in the country that offer musicians full-year pay and that ensembles offering less are less of a “destination” for top talent.

“You don’t cut your way to success,” McManus said. He cited the letter from ASO music director Spano and principal guest conductor Runnicles, who are neither part of the administration nor the orchestra and who remained silent during the 2012 strife, as an important signpost.

“Sustainability must also be applied to a quality of the orchestra and the notion of excellence,” they wrote, “not only to finances.”

“I think what (the maestros) are concerned about now is that this trend of continuing large cuts doesn’t seem to have any end point,” McManus said, “but that management is not actually producing the stability that was promised with the cuts initially.”

Management’s quick response to that letter suggested a hard line that appears more and more likely to hold when the clock hits 11:59 p.m. Saturday.

“We agree that a work stoppage is not in the best interests of anyone associated with the ASO,” its statement said. “But neither is the continuation of operating deficits that have been ongoing for 12 years nor the consequences they bring.”

.............................................Contact AJC arts reporter Howard Pousner at hpousner@ajc.com.

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