I have certainly seen my share of stressful and contentious contract negotiations in my 35-year career with the Houston Symphony. My last stint on the negotiating committee was in 2003, the negotiations that resulted in the first strike called by the musicians of the Houston Symphony. During those negotiations, our negotiation committee held out until March against pressure from musicians to strike earlier in the season. I could write a lengthy article on this subject alone, but a much more positive and productive story is that I feel much was learned from that strike by the management, the board, and the musicians.
Many of the chronic cycles that have repeated themselves every three years for as long as I can remember were finally addressed during the recently concluded negotiations. It was certainly painful for the musicians to have had our salaries frozen and our healthcare benefits reduced, as well as to have seen the deficit reduction financed in large part by leaving positions within the orchestra unfilled and using furlough weeks. On their part, the board pledged to demand more from board members and to recruit new members who wanted to leave behind past practices. The management, under the then new CEO, Matthew VanBesien, gathered a group of talented people on staff not only to seek new ways to solve our problems, but also to address the common problems all American orchestras face in the twenty-first century. Maybe it’s because Houston was the first orchestra to hit the wall in 2003, but I think we finally began to see that the rules of the industry were changing and we needed to adapt.
The results, though hard for the musicians to bear (since we had taken similar sacrifices in previous contracts), have brought us three years of balanced budgets and helped us in our fundraising efforts. Our audiences have increased and progress is being made in raising the level of our endowment.
As to our recent settlement, salaries have started once again to increase modestly, the furloughs are being phased out (ending next year), the vacancies are being gradually filled, our healthcare premium has returned to earlier rates (the premiums had doubled a year ago), and a ten-year dispute regarding the status of our now-frozen defined benefit pension plan was resolved in the musicians’ favor. (The Houston Symphony is currently in the AFM-EPF pension plan.) Through the tireless work of our negotiating committee, our attorney, Mel Schwarzwald, as well as our board and management, the process was completed well in advance of the contract deadline (pending the pension issue resolution).
From my long perspective, these seem to be positive signs. All sides are starting to see that if our organization is to prosper, each branch is needed and must function together with the others, as pulling in the same direction is always most effective. To harm one part of the organization inevitably harms the whole.
Eric Arbiter is Houston Symphony’s ICSOM delegate as well as its associate principal bassoonist.