On November 13, 2014, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra returned to Symphony Hall stage to a reception that more closely resembled that of fans at a highly anticipated sports event. Music Director Robert Spano conducted, Concertmaster David Coucheron played a Mozart concerto, and the ASO Chorus joined the orchestra for a rendition of the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven. This concert also marked the end of a nine-week lockout, our second in as many years, and the first concert of the Atlanta Symphony’s 70th season that should have begun in September. As we played the music that expresses “Thy magic reunites those whom stern custom has parted,” the musicians took the next step in forging a new relationship with our patrons, our board, and the Woodruff Arts Center, following a successful campaign to mobilize the entire community behind the preservation of this great orchestra.
This year’s lockout began when our already-regressive two-year contract expired on September 6. Our management—the Woodruff Arts Center, of which the ASO is a fairly powerless “division”—refused even to meet the day before locking us out unless we would accept the unacceptable Last, Best and Final Offer that they had delivered by e-mail. The WAC/ASO’s proposal sought to eradicate our already-reduced complement and make it subject to management’s sole discretion, and to degrade our healthcare plan and determine unilaterally what it would consist of, while requiring us to share much more of its cost. All of this was against the backdrop of meager salary increases of 0%, 1%, 1.5% and 2% on the reduced salaries we have endured since our 2012 lockout, with no restoration of the ten weeks cut then from each season. The only financial lure, a $150,000 buyout for those with 30+ years to leave the orchestra, rounded out the WAC’s ominous vision of the “flexible” complement by encouraging greater attrition. Designed to make the Orchestra shoulder the burden of the WAC’s debt and potential bond rating problems (as well as the fundraising and management failures of departed CEO Stanley Romanstein), the WAC/ASO proposal simply had nothing to recommend it. To protract the lockout and starve us out while appearing to be bargaining in good faith, the WAC/ASO called for federal mediation, knowing cynically well that it had no obligation to agree to anything or to heed any mediator’s suggestion.
We were unwavering in our resolve to prevent our Grammy award-winning ASO from being pushed further down and backwards, and had worked to prepare for the 2014 siege throughout the two years of the concessionary agreement we reluctantly accepted in 2012. Aided by well-coordinated bargaining, media and legal strategies and thousands of hours of work, the musicians received near-unanimous support from far-flung media outlets and powerful individuals—pressure that, during the final two days, for the first time, brought some of the true decision-makers to the table. These conditions enabled FMCS Acting Director Alison Beck and Commissioner Richard Giacolone (who attended the later meetings without Ms. Beck) to prove helpful.
Multiple sellout concerts all over town sponsored by the new 501(c)3 ATL Symphony Musicians Foundation and sales of T-shirts and other support materials on the picket line kept everyone busy. The Political Action Committee spoke with local politicians at every level to gain their support. An independent community group—Save Our Symphony Atlanta—was established, and the ASO Chorus was very vocal and active as well, singing literally and figuratively on the picket lines and social media alike. The orchestra was also incredibly fortunate to have the total support of both Music Director Robert Spano and Principal Guest Conductor Donald Runnicles, who wrote open letters and lobbied publicly for an end to the destructive lunacy of the repeat lockout and for the orchestra’s immediate return to the stage. A board member who resigned in September sponsored “A Deafening Silence” , attended by hundreds of supporters at the entrance of the Woodruff Arts Center. “ASO Presents” concerts were leafleted in support of the AFM’s placement of the ASO on the International Unfair List. The Local, the Symphonic Services Division and AFM President Ray Hair were as supportive as they could be, and ICSOM put out a Call to Action that brought in a quarter of a million dollars from orchestras throughout North America.
The settlement was achieved when the WAC leadership finally agreed to take a risk and incrementally guarantee 88 players by the fourth year, replacing those lost by attrition since 2012. An innovative, money-saving healthcare solution proposed by the musicians was worked out. Although the orchestra certainly wanted more players, a higher scale and the restoration of our lost weeks, the complement issue was by far the most universally important—for the ASO as well as our colleagues throughout the entire orchestra “industry.”
Two years ago we decided that we would not allow the Orchestra to move backwards in size, take-home pay, healthcare, or weeks, and that our restoration had to trump any effort to impose a “new model,” like tying complement to the success of a particular fundraising campaign, with the number and specific positions of players determined by management rather than the art or its artists. We set about to protect our world-class orchestra, by educating donors and the public about what a world-class orchestra is and how important is its preservation, by fostering relationships that could help craft an early and peaceful settlement, and by preparing for the worst-case scenario that the WAC/ASO’s 2012 behavior sadly forced us to expect.
It will take a long time to recover from the harm the WAC/ASO’s tactics have wrought: it hurts that many musicians had to take other work to survive and are still not back among us. Thanks to the help of all of ICSOM’s members, the professionals who assisted and guided us (including counsel Liza Hirsch Medina and PR expert Randy Whatley, whose close coordination with each other and our committee was vital), and the ongoing support of volunteer groups, the Atlanta Symphony is now poised to move forward again. We know now from bitter experience what we have been advised for many years, that the preparation of these past two years needs to be our “new normal.” The work that went into preserving our contract was as subtle and important as the work that built and melded a complement of musicians into a great orchestra with its own distinctive sonic—and people—power.