As most of you already know, whether from keeping up with the turmoil in Phoenix for many years or from just reading and hearing about our recent issues, the Phoenix Symphony has once again struggled to make progress. We have seen this city grow to become the fifth largest in the nation, but our symphony is still fortieth on the ICSOM orchestra wage scale charts.
Although this group of musicians has struggled since 1984 to make meaningful progress toward moving up the ICSOM salary ladder, we have not even maintained a cost of living standard over the past 25 years. We have opened our contract to givebacks and cuts at least five times in the last 25 years. Due to the recent cuts, our salary is going in reverse faster than many of our peers.
Our last contract attempted to address the promise made by Michael Christie, our music director, when he spoke to the press upon arriving in Phoenix. He clearly said his goal was to get the musicians to a salary of $50,000 as soon as possible. Our management stated that one of their main goals was to raise the musicians’ salaries and often repeated, as part of an ongoing vision statement, that they wanted us to reach parity with Los Angeles and San Francisco in the next 25 years. During our last contract negotiations in 2005, we computed there would need to be 8.8% raises each season, beginning in 2006 and continuing for 25 years, to reach San Francisco’s pay level (assuming they receive a 4% raise each year). Not surprisingly, we were not able to get an 8.8% raise for any season in that contract, but we did get a respectable commitment of growth. We went from $34,156 in 2005 to $45,567 in 2011, a reasonable 5% average raise each season. We now retreat to a base wage of $35,000 for the 2009–2010 season, which remains frozen through the 2010–2011 season—and so the cycle begins anew.
If you have kept up with the press coming out of Phoenix recently, you know there has been an unusual amount of unrest within our organization. There have been several NLRB charges brought against the management by our union, Local 586, on behalf of the players, some NLRB charges from players individually, and lawsuits against our board and management filed by players. It is clear that there is something drastically wrong here that must be addressed in some manner.
To help guide our musicians through this difficult dilemma, we invited ICSOM Chairperson Bruce Ridge to come to Phoenix and address our musicians. When we first invited him months ago, we had no idea that Bruce would arrive within days of our getting notice that management was requesting a meeting “to address the financial challenges that face the Symphony due to the collapse of the economy.” He walked into the most troubling time our musicians have ever faced, being presented with the alternatives of either a $28,000 base wage for 2009–2010 for 28 non-consecutive weeks (down from $40,900 2008–2009 for 40 weeks) or a player reduction from 76 to 50 (and an attitude of “take it or bankruptcy”).
As you would expect, Bruce provided a wonderful sounding board for our musicians. He was able to impart useful information as he compared our situation to others with which he was familiar. He was also able to meet with a former president of our board, our CEO, and our music director. We asked Bruce to address the musicians in a full orchestra meeting. It was fabulous that we had the largest meeting in recent times with 86% of our members in attendance. Pointing out that the symphony business is still thriving in many places, Bruce was able to give us hope that we, too, could improve our own situation and thrive, regardless of our history or of mistakes made on all sides. In addition, Bruce attended a negotiation meeting where the musicians first presented management with a proposal for solving the temporary economic conditions that faced our organization. Unfortunately, our board and management gave us false hope of a quick resolution at that brief meeting, most likely because they did not want to appear unreasonable to an outsider. Regardless, it was quite a boost to have Bruce see and understand our situation firsthand, and we hope he can return soon.
Maintaining a full-time orchestra here in Phoenix became a far greater struggle than seemed necessary. It began with a simple PowerPoint presentation by three board members explaining that, due to the “economic collapse,” we were no longer a $12 million organization but an $8 million organization, and it was therefore mandatory that the musicians simply remove $2 million from their budget line to match the $2 million being cut from the staff/ production/guest artist budget line. We were presented with new, severe restructuring models (e.g., possibly returning to the 1960s schedule of night and weekend rehearsals and concerts) in order to accomplish that reduction. It seemed to our committee that we were being brought in to bargain not as reasonable people that have a desire to solve a mutual problem, but as a group of musicians that were secondary to the life of the Phoenix Symphony Association. As it turned out after much struggle and a visit from Peter Pastreich, we accepted a 17% aggregate cut over the next three seasons and were able to continue to be a full-time orchestra. If you wish greater detail, please refer to the ICSOM bulletin submitted following negotiations.
2009-2010 and Beyond
We are optimistic about our future but have much to do at this time. We refuse to give up the quest for a healthy relationship with our management, our board, and each other. There are more and more musicians with the growing realization that we all must do more than just show up prepared to make music who are stepping up and getting involved. When will our salary grow out of the basement group of symphonies? Must the wonderful weather be the major factor for staying here? Well, at least it’s a dry heat…