On August 29, 2009, under unprecedented pressure from the Honolulu Symphony board, the Honolulu Symphony (HSO) musicians ratified an agreement that changed the second year of their 2008–2011 contract, reducing their season from 34 to 29 weeks and their pay by 15%.
When the 2008–2009 season ended on May 10, the HSO musicians were still owed 15 weeks of back pay—more than 44% of their annual salary. The pay situation was even worse than the 2007–2008 season’s (which saw the orchestra falling more than 11 weeks behind in pay at one point), and took a tremendous financial, emotional, and physical toll on the musicians. By the end of May, a significant number of musicians had decided not to return for the following season, and more were leaving or contemplating leaving as every week went by.
During the spring and summer of 2009, musician and union leadership met with board and community leaders to share a consistent message: If the musicians were not paid their back pay, there would not be an orchestra to perform when the 2009–2010 season was scheduled to start in September. They also warned that failure to have the season would likely mean the end of the Honolulu Symphony. In response, and noting that most of the funds in the HSO’s endowment had been granted by the state, a key state legislator strongly encouraged the Honolulu Symphony Foundation (the separate entity that manages the HSO’s endowment) to use the state’s funds to collateralize an advance to the HSO in order to pay musician and staff back wages.
Although a $1.8 million advance—more than enough to cover all employees’ back wages—was now to be made available, the Foundation decided to put conditions on its release to the HSO. It divided the money into three parts and set a different condition to release each part: the creation of a “30-60-90 day action plan;” the hiring of a new executive director (the previous executive director had left in June); and the adoption of a “realistic” budget for the 2009–2010 season. This third condition put particular pressure on the musicians, as the Foundation made it clear that a “realistic” budget had to include sizable pay concessions (instead of the 5% salary increase required by the contract). In other words, in order to receive pay for the work that they had already done, musicians would have to agree to accept cuts for the upcoming season.
With their back pay now held hostage, the HSO musicians were immediately engaged in “budgeting meetings” with both Symphony board and Foundation leadership to try to meet the conditions. These meetings included a proposal from the board that musicians’ salaries be based on a sliding scale, depending on how well or poorly the HSO’s fundraising campaign goes; at one point, the scale showed low-end cuts of over 30%.
While the musicians firmly rejected any sliding scales, they eventually agreed to cut their full-time salary for the 2009–2010 season by nearly 15% by reducing the season from 34 weeks to 29 (thus preserving the 5% weekly wage increase in the original contract). In addition, the musicians agreed to drop outstanding grievances (and thus all claims for interest or penalties) for late pay from the 2007–2008 and the 2008–2009 seasons. In return, the HSO board agreed to grant a leave of absence to any contracted musician who requests one by September 30, and, most importantly, to remit all back pay owed for the 2008–2009 season. Other terms of the contract—including the original terms for the 2010-11 season—remain in force. The board decided to mandate 15% paycuts for all staff and conductors as well.
On September 4, 2009, HSO musicians finally received the remaining 11 weeks of pay from the 2008–2009 season. As of September 17, however, 16 musicians—nearly one fifth of the contracted orchestra—have already either resigned or taken leaves of absence for the new season, which began September 13. The musicians also remain concerned that, although the revised budget calls for a 36% increase in fundraising over 2008–2009 levels, the make-up of the HSO board remains almost unchanged from the 2008–2009 season.
Steve Flanter, Honolulu Symphony Orchestra Delegate
Members of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra continue to spend their lives in perpetual contract negotiations. An original three-year contract ratified in August 2008 was due to expire in September 2011. In April 2009, in recognition of the economic problems the organization was facing, the musicians agreed to insert a new second year into the agreement, giving one million dollars in concessions, representing an 8% reduction in the salary and benefits package the musicians were scheduled to receive in the 2009–2010 season. On the heels of that agreement came another cry from the employer for yet more relief, and at the end of July, on the evening of the orchestra’s last service for the summer, the musicians ratified new wage reductions for the 2009–2010 season, along with a two-week furlough in August 2009. The new deal for the 2009–2010 season calls for a minimum weekly scale of $1450 which includes a $7 EMG, the reduction of seniority and personal overscale by 7.5%, the reduction in pension contribution to the AFM-EP Fund from 5% to 4%, and three additional weeks of furlough. In addition, the musicians were informed that their presence is requested back at the negotiating table to devise further cuts to their CBA for the 2010–2011 season. As of this writing it is too early in the BSO’s season to know what next steps the musicians will take.
Mary Plaine, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Delegate