Since our new President and CEO Scott Showalter joined us in the fall of 2014, the past two seasons at the Oregon Symphony have been marked by an upswing in fundraising, ticket sales, and general morale. The organization has transformed from one that endured two full seasons (2012-13 and 2013-14) with no official executive leadership and the threat of complete collapse, to one that has seen an incredible amount of potential to grow into something bigger and better—Like Never Before (no really, that’s the tag-line for next season). Just last month, our annual fundraising Gala brought in over $850,000, while past galas held prior to Mr. Showalter’s arrival brought in significantly less than half that. Our Board of Directors has been reinvigorated; the directors are energized and excited, and have brought their giving up to significantly higher levels. These recent years have also seen a rise in artistic and musical achievements, as well as a significant commitment to community and educational outreach projects. The impact that the Oregon Symphony is making in the city of Portland and state of Oregon is being seen, heard, and appreciated.
And then there were contract negotiations.
After spending over a year at the negotiating table (and over seven months without a contract in “play-and-talk” mode), we have finally come to an agreement, and one that has been ratified. Barely. The vote count, which demonstrated an unprecedented amount of disapproval, was not altogether surprising to me or my other negotiating team colleagues. This contract was a hard sell for various reasons, especially considering recent (not to mention not-so-recent) history.
Historically, the Oregon Symphony musicians have been giving, and giving, and giving. During the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons, we gave back 2.5 weeks of pay, amounting to a 3% wage cut each year (it is important to note that while recent articles have labeled this as “bonus” pay that was forgone, it was in reality not a bonus, but rather just another element of our contractual season pay that was lost). Prior seasons were riddled with wage freezes, and promised raises were chipped away in the form of contract re-openers. One musician offered a sobering and monumental figure: over the past twelve years, the musicians of the Oregon Symphony have (in the form of give-backs, pay-cuts, pay-freezes, etc.) donated over $12,000,000 to the organization. This equates to having played two seasons, gratis.
But back to today. This new contract, which runs until the 2017-18 season, offers the musicians yearly COLA: Cost-Of-Living-Adjustments (these are calculated excluding the increases attributed to health care, since management supplies us with healthcare and is absorbing those increases that way). I really like the word “adjustment” because it paints a much more accurate picture than the word “raise”, and here’s why: while the numbers on the page may be going up, however slightly, these are not raises. This becomes even more strikingly obvious when you realize that these figures are calculated by the “All-Cities” version of inflation, which is sadly dwarfed by locally rising costs in the city of Portland; musicians therefore see these adjustments as wage cuts at the worst, or freezes at the absolute best. This year’s increase amounts to 1.45%, while next season we will see an increase of 0.5%. That is $7 a week (before taxes). I guess I won’t have to kick that twice-a-week coffee habit. Yet.
The past few years have seen the orchestra budget grow by $2 million, with 0% of that increase earmarked for increases in musician compensation. Musicians’ wages seem to be the only “cost” not viewed as inevitable to increase, and it’s been made clear by management that even the COLA increase will be an extreme fundraising burden. This is coupled with the fact that the orchestra is, at 86% of the full complement dictated by the contract, smaller than ever; we have been operating under a side letter allowing for hiring freezes to keep the numbers from 88 down to 76 musicians. We see money allocated for things that seem, at least in times like these, frivolous. One musician succinctly (and hilariously) questioned the decision to spend money on a new Haydn CD recording: “why would you build a deck on a house when you can’t afford the mortgage?” There is certainly value in recording projects, and we understand how this can benefit the organization. But dollars seem to magically appear for things that can be seen as potential fundraising tools or Grammy submission opportunities, not to mention Music Director-related projects. Evidently it’s just not “sexy” to raise the money required to pay musicians a more respectable wage.
In addition to the monetary aspects of the contract, the musicians have been generous in the relaxing of several work and scheduling rules, allowing management the freedom to schedule more revenue-producing engagements. This of course goes hand-in-hand with historical musician give-backs in the sense that making ourselves more available, schedule-wise, limits our ability to go out and make income from other sources, be it teaching or gigging—something that we all depend on. Additionally, we have agreed to give management the option of self-insuring healthcare (although concerns from musicians abound, especially with regard to privacy: “will people in the office know when I need reimbursement for a colonoscopy?!” etc.), which we believe will ultimately be a significant cost-saving measure. (And no, since the paperwork will go through a third party, nobody in the office will know about your colonoscopy.)
Along the lines of certain things being fundraising burdens and other things being able to magically make money appear, you will notice in the ICSOM wage charts that one of the glaringly missing pieces of information from our orchestra’s line is the Music Director salary. We all know that the top earners in a non-profit have their salaries listed on the yearly 990 forms. The management here at the OS, however, evidently believes it has found a loophole with which to hide this information. You can easily imagine how something like this would add to the general dismay and non-approval of what is already seen as a lackluster, stagnant contract offer.
In a nutshell, we, the musicians, fear for the future. In a city that gets increasingly expensive to live in (thanks for the exposure, Portlandia!), we are concerned for our ability to attract high-caliber musicians and, more importantly, to keep them. Recently, the Oregonian published an article stating that in order to live in the city of Portland and not struggle financially, a single person had to be making over $60,000. This of course is well above the base salary of the Oregon Symphony. Should the quality of life for a member of the premiere musical organization of the entire state be reduced to “just scraping by”? This concern goes unrecognized by management, and sadly there has been no push by anyone in leadership, including our Music Director, to put two and two together and realize that maintaining a world-class orchestral organization requires some sort of competitive edge in the field, financially.
I’d like to see the Oregon Symphony “Like Never Before” as well—but exactly what that looks like remains to be seen.