Updated: Mediated talks between Atlanta Symphony musicians, leaders stalled over orchestra size

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The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.
The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

Further cancellations of  Atlanta Symphony Orchestra 70th anniversary season concerts are a possiblity.

After three weeks of federally mediated contract negotiations, talks between Atlanta Symphony Orchestra musicians and ASO and Woodruff Arts Center administrators again appear near impasse.

No further sessions are planned, the musician lockout is entering its eighth week and additional concert cancellations in the 70th anniversary season are being openly discussed.

Though there was notable progress on matters of pay and health benefits in talks with the mediators over the last three weeks, the sides could not come to terms on a core issue: the size of the orchestra going forward.

The Woodruff/ASO’s chief negotiator, Alston & Bird attorney J. Thomas Kilpatrick, called it “the only real remaining issue in the negotiations.”

Yet Allison Beck, acting director of the U.S. Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, and fellow mediator Richard Giacolone have gone home. ASO and Woodruff leaders, who in late September, canceled the first eight concerts of orchestra’s 70th anniversary season, through Nov. 8, now say more performances are at risk.

“Barring the union accepting our latest proposal, we will soon be forced to announce a cancellation of more of the Symphony season,” Woodruff president and CEO Virginia Hepner wrote in a Friday memo to the governing board of the Woodruff, the orchestra’s parent nonprofit.

The musician’s accepting that offer seems highly unlikely.

In the two-year collective bargaining agreement they signed with great aggrievement in 2012, the musicians agreed to a cut in the orchestra’s “complement” (number of full-time musicians) from 95 to 88. This time ASO and Woodruff (WAC) leaders seek ultimate control over the ASO’s size as a strategy to help halt 12 years of orchestra deficits, including $2 million in fiscal 2014.

“The WAC leadership continued steadfastly to refuse to support the need of a world-class orchestra for a minimum fixed number of musicians,” the Players’ Association said in a statement released in Friday’s wee hours, after nearly 40 hours of mediated talks over three days.

The players’ union said there are now 77 full-time musicians after departures, retirements and deaths (the administrators count the ranks at 76), and the crux of the disagreement is the number of the contracted complement in the next collective bargaining agreement – and who decides how the orchestra gets to it.

In a Friday letter to ASO Players’ Association president Paul Murphy interpreting the distance between the two sides, Kilpatrick noted that the union was standing firm on its position that the number of players be raised to 89 by the fourth year of the proposed contract, “regardless of the fact that the orchestra is losing money.

“Of course, everyone would like to have a very large orchestra,” he continued, “but we cannot afford 89 musicians at the present time.”

Woodruff leadership proposes a complement of the 76 remaining full-time musicians, “guaranteeing” that none of those would lose a job to downsizing during the four-year agreement.

In a proposal being made public for the first time, Kilpatrick said that if musicians accepted the cut to 76 full-time positions, administrators and board members would launch a major fund-raising campaign whose proceeds exclusively would endow musician chairs. Leadership’s pledge is that it would build the size of the orchestra “over time as we can afford to do so — up to 90 players,” the attorney wrote.

This “aspiration,” to use management’s term, adds up to a unique offer, one for which there is no apparent precedent among major American orchestras. Matters such as complement typically are not left to good intentions or chance in collective bargaining agreements.

Since the lockout began, the musicians have repeatedly made it clear that they lack faith in ASO and WAC management, releasing a stream of statements to the media accusing leaders of poor stewardship and even malfeasance.

Thus, it wasn’t surprising that Kirkpatrick noted in his letter that the Players’ Association stood firm during last week’s sessions that “it would rather have no orchestra at all if it cannot have a larger orchestra with a guaranteed number of players.”

The word “guaranteed” was not italicized for emphasis but it could have been.

The musicians have said repeatedly throughout negotiations that further cuts to their ranks would destroy their acclaimed sound. And even though musical leaders are typically neutral in labor disputes, ASO music director Robert Spano and principal guest conductor Donald Runnicles have made potent statements in support of that point.

In fact, by using mainstream and social media artfully, the musicians and maestros have turned what might have been another typically unpleasant contract negotiation into a public forum on the ASO’s future. Blog writers and commenters have sided almost exclusively with the musicians, aiming endless barbs at the other side.

That’s why Hepner, in her Friday memo to the Woodruff governing board, prepared the leaders for louder discord. “I would love to assure you that the animosity, anger and personal attacks of the last several weeks will not resume now, but I cannot,” she wrote. “The national musicians’ union believes it can divide and conquer and then intimidate our boards into imprudent decisions through its acrimony and misrepresentations. … We will not give in to those efforts.”

In the end, negotiating a collective bargaining agreement is a bottom line business, and Kirkpatrick said management’s most recent offer — including a 4.5 percent pay increase over the four years on salaries that his letter said currently average $112,000 — would remain on the table until Monday afternoon.

“If not accepted by that time,” he wrote, “we will be forced to make further cancellations.”

Follow the AJC for continuing coverage of the ASO and Musicians’ contract dispute. 


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