ASO, musicians back at the table

The musicians of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra — locked out since Aug. 25 with no paychecks or insurance — are willing to accept $5.2 million in salary and benefit cuts if it means they can get back on the stage soon.

But as both sides try to come up with an agreement that would help erase a projected debt that could top $20 million, there is one caveat.

Christina Smith, a spokeswoman for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Players Association, said that once the new, lower base salary for musicians is established, all administrative staff members making above that figure should also take a pay cut.

“They would also share in that sacrifice,” said Smith, the orchestra’s principal flute player.

At 9 p.m. Monday, for the first time since Aug. 25, the two sides sat down for face-to-face talks.

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ASO President Stanley Romanstein would not comment Monday afternoonon on the musicians’ latest proposal. But he previously rejected the notion that management should be included in the cuts, arguing that administrative personnel had already taken substantial reductions in salaries and benefits.

“Conversations have been taking place … over the last week. Because this is a very crucial moment in the negotiations, I am unable to discuss any further details at this time,” Romanstein said in a brief statement to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Under the last contract, which expired last month, the beginning base salary for an ASO musician was $88,400. The average compensation was $131,000, which included free health and dental coverage, free instrument insurance, pension benefits and eight weeks of paid vacation.

Earlier in the negotiations, the musicians had agreed to take $4 million in cuts over two years, rather than the $5.2 million demanded by management.

Last month, in what Romanstein called the ASO’s final offer, management proposed reducing achieving the necessary savings by reducing the number of musicians from as many as 96 to as few as 88. He also proposed that musicians work 42 weeks a year instead of 52. They would be paid a fraction of their salary during the 10 inactive weeks.

The musicians initially rejected that position, but about 10 days ago, with the Oct. 4 season opener drawing nearer, Romanstein threatened to cancel all October concerts unless a deal was reached.

“If we do not begin work as scheduled on or about Sept. 25, we will not be fully prepared to open the season,” he wrote in a memo to the Players Association.

Smith said she was hopeful that Monday night’s negotiations would prevent a delay to the season.

“We have given them everything they asked for,” she said. “We are hopeful that we will not have any concerts canceled, because we want to go back to work and play for our fans.” Smith said.

The ASO’s labor issues are not unique, as orchestras all over the country are dealing with producing an expensive product in the middle of a recession.

Earlier this month, the Minnesota Orchestra announced plans to cut musician salaries by 28 percent. Musicians in the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra have also been locked out and concerts scheduled for this upcoming weekend have been cancelled.

On Saturday, musicians in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra went on strike after both sides failed to come up with a new contract. Talks resumed Monday.

“In the industry, it looks like the national trend is for management to seek the type of concessions the ASO is seeking,” said John T.L. Koenig, an Atlanta-based labor attorney with Barnes & Thornburg.

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