Mediator to begin work on ASO impasse

Allison Beck won’t be walking into an unknown situation Tuesday when she relaunches negotiations between the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and its locked-out musicians.

Last summer, Beck, the acting director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Services, talked the New York Metropolitan Opera and its workers and musicians from a dozen unions back into the concert hall and helped save the season. But that was before a lockout took place.

She will begin the difficult work of trying to rescue the ASO’s season after a monthlong lockout during which rancor and tension over pay, benefits and the size of the orchestra have swollen to an infected state.

Alan Gordon, the executive director of the American Guild of Musical Artists in New York, praised Beck’s seriousness and effectiveness in mediating the Met negotiations. His review: “She is terrific.”

But he knows the effects the growing tension can have on the two sides.

“It may be more difficult if the employees are already locked out because there is more pressure to solve the problems,” he said.

And there are already rankled feelings in Atlanta from a lockout just two years ago that saw musicians take a 14 percent pay cut and the orchestra reduce full-time musicians from 95 to 88.

Beck declined an interview request from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, citing the need for neutrality and confidentiality during mediation.

Asked to comment about Beck, the Met management sent the AJC a written statement thanking her for the role she played in reaching a resolution.

Beck has spent her career specializing in labor law, from her early days as a legislative aide on the U.S. Senate Labor Relations Committee to her appointment by President Barack Obama as the acting director of the federal mediation agency. The FMCS was created in 1947 to deal with labor impasses.

Stanley Birch, a retired judge from the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, is now an Atlanta-based mediator who does work like Beck’s.

“A mediator usually plays devil’s advocate for both sides and talks about strengths and weaknesses of their position, and then gets them to come to a place where both side have to give a little bit,” he said.

“Arbitrators and mediators are neutral,” Birch said, “but that doesn’t mean you can’t critique each side or play devil’s advocate.”

Mediators typically meet with one side at a time, carrying proposals and counterproposals between the two groups.

Birch said it’s a bit different than two sides arguing in court because neither is disputing how to apply points of law. It is more a hammering out of disagreements over work issues within a legal framework.

Gordon said both sides at the Met got some of what they wanted during negotiations.

“It’s the perfect negotiation when both sides think they kicked the (expletive) out of the other side,” Gordon said.

He warned that unsuccessful negotiations could have dire consequences. Subscribers leave during a lockout, revenue is lost, and the symphony’s quality and morale can drop as some musicians look for and take other jobs.

“The symphony ultimately loses,” he said.

Management of the ASO and its parent nonprofit, the Woodruff Arts Center, locked out the musicians on Sept. 7 after eight months of negotiations on a collective bargaining agreement proved unsuccessful.

The administrators said their final proposal was for a four-year deal with an escalating salary increase topping out at 4.5 percent. The musicians proposed a roughly 15 percent salary increase over four years. Another point of division was health care, with the musicians being asked to assume a greater share of the cost, which they said would turn the raise offered by management into a net decrease.

The orchestra has finished 12 consecutive years with deficits, losing $2 million on a budget of $37 million in fiscal 2014.

With no talks after the lockout, management canceled all concerts through Nov. 8.

ASO President and CEO Stanley Romanstein resigned last week, saying in a statement that he didn’t want to be an “impediment” to negotiations. Terry Neal, a retired Coca-Cola Co. executive and current ASO board member who was appointed president on an interim basis, will not be involved in the talks. Instead, the role of chief negotiator will be assumed by the administration’s legal counsel, J. Tom Kilpatrick of Alston & Bird.

Woodruff President and CEO Virginia Hepner plans to join the talks for the first time. “We are pleased to return to the negotiating table and remain hopeful that our dialogue with the musicians will result in a new plan that balances the artistic and financial goals of the ASO,” she said.

The musicians sounded a hopeful note, as well. “We are entering into the mediation process the same way we approach a concert: wholeheartedly, ready to give our all and do our very best,” ASO Players’ Association President Paul Murphy said. “We hope Ms. Beck can … make possible a meaningful and constructive negotiation that will result in a fair agreement that allows our music and artistry (to return to) to the hungry citizens of Atlanta.”

At least one thing should change: After a month of the ASO dispute playing out like a spewing volcano in the media and on social media, expect mediator Beck will try to restrict the barbs to behind closed doors.

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