ASO musicians strike deal, avert delay of season opener

After going without pay for a month, the musicians of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra accepted a new collective bargaining agreement Wednesday, barely averting a postponement of the fall season. The deal will cost players $5.2 million in compensation over two years, change their pay structure, and cut their numbers significantly.

In return, ASO President Stanley Romanstein and a handful of other top ASO executives will forfeit 6 percent of their collective salaries.

The agreement clears the way for the 2012-2013 season to open on time Oct. 4. But the musicians – who claim that the cuts demanded by ASO management will set the orchestra back decades — made it clear that they are far from satisfied. That raises the question of how the symphony, regarded as one of the best in the country, will repair itself.

“The musicians … have agreed to these deep concessions for one reason alone, and that is to do what they do best: continue to play great music for their public at an extraordinarily high level,” the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Players Association wrote in a scathing news release Wednesday night.

Calls to orchestra management were not returned Wednesday evening, and the ASO webpage did not indicate that a deal had been made.

Drew McManus, an industry insider who has followed the negotiations carefully, said Wednesday that while the labor dispute has been settled, the fight is not over, and the lingering bitterness is likely to result in “an ongoing cycle of retribution.”

“There will be less willingness on the part of the musicians to do additional work, the little extra things that help build the organization up,” McManus said. “There’s likely to be bad blood between the folks in the office and the musicians. There’s no way it’s going to put the organization in a place where it’s going to work at maximum efficiency, and I mean on every level – artistic and non-artistic.”

On the union’s website and on their Facebook page, the reaction to the settlement was mixed.

When someone wrote “hooray” on the Facebook in response to news of the deal, a veteran player soberly responded: “Hooray?! This is a dark day in the ASO’s history.”

From the outset, it was clear that the negotiations would be painful. Faced with a debt projected to reach $20 million next year, the ASO and its parent organization, the Woodruff Arts Center, were under tremendous pressure to bring down costs.

Management took the position that musicians’ compensation was the ASO’s single biggest cost and that the players had seen their pay rise dramatically under the four-year contract that expired in August. At every turn, the organization signaled a willingness to stand its ground – even if it meant taking a financial hit by delaying the start of the season.

The musicians waged a passionate PR campaign on the dual themes of artistic quality and fairness.

Trimming compensation and reducing the number of full-time players would roll back years’ worth of strides toward artistic excellence, they warned. Besides, they said, the orchestra’s money troubles were not of the players’ making; instead, they argued, management spent too much on other things, particularly administrative salaries and operating the Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre.

Even after the agreement was reached, they hammered on those points. “The musicians are not, and have never been, the cause of financial problems at the ASO,” union leaders wrote. “Their world-class performance is in stark contrast to that of the ASO’s leadership, both current and past. Management must be held accountable for under-performance at nearly every level for the past decade.”

Negotiations reached a breaking point Aug. 25, when the existing contract expired and the ASO stopped paying salaries or benefits. At that point, the musicians had offered to accept $4 million in cuts instead of $5.2 million, an offer management declined.

After several weeks without any talks, Romanstein told the players by email on Sept. 13 that he would feel obligated to cancel all October concerts if no deal was reached this week.

Under the new agreement, the musicians will account for 24 percent of the ASO’s budget, down from 28 percent. The number of musicians will drop from 95 to 88 and the season will be reduced from 52 to 41 weeks in 2012-13 and 42 weeks in 2013-14. Players will still be paid all year, but they will receive only partial pay during those off weeks.

Executives who will see their pay reduced include Romanstein, who according to the latest available IRS records made $314,000 over seven months after he joined the ASO in mid-2010; CFO Donald Fox, who earned $291,000; and three other top ASO managers. None of the other 70 or so staff members will receive a pay cut — despite the union’s calls for a wider sharing of the pain.

McManus said that, despite the musicians’ warnings of irreparable damage, he doubts that the quality of the music will suffer.

“Does that mean that they won’t be playing at the same level as before?” he asked rhetorically. “Or will you keep doing what you do even with less pay and the concessions, because you’re a professional?”