After ten long and painful years, the Musicians and Board of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra (CSO) agreed to a progressive contract this summer that provides the first real economic gains for the musicians since 2008. Because central Ohio is a large and very prosperous part of our country, it has been difficult and frustrating waiting for this recovery to begin. Many CSO musicians have wondered why our neighbor cities in Cleveland and Cincinnati are able to sustain orchestras with annual budgets many times greater than Columbus.
The orchestras in Cleveland and Cincinnati have large endowments and long histories of generous support compared to Columbus, but those facts are manifestations of something deeper and more important. It would be unthinkable to the city leaders in Cleveland and Cincinnati to permanently cut back or allow their orchestras to dissolve. That is because those leaders care about their orchestras and understand their vital importance for many reasons. Sadly, that is not true in Columbus. That’s the fundamental difference, and we learned this painful lesson the hard way.
Beginning in 2005, our orchestra began to run very large deficits that were paid for by burning through the orchestra’s small endowment. Though the post-9/11 economic problems contributed to these deficits, something worse was a greater factor. The philanthropic, corporate, and political city leaders had decided that the orchestra was no longer worthy of support, and most of our largest contributors withdrew or severely cut their annual contributions. All of this led to the board consuming nearly all assets and eventually locking out the musicians in May 2008, violating the no-lock-out clause in the contract, which was still in effect.
In the months that followed, the musicians pursued an aggressive public campaign through various print, radio, and television media. We also worked heavily with volunteer supporters, and filed charges against the orchestra with the National Labor Relations Board, all in an effort to pressure the board and city leaders to provide enough support to resume operations. But by the end of the summer, we learned that only two staff members remained employed, for the purpose of turning out the lights permanently. This was not posturing for negotiation purposes. The board had given up on the orchestra and was preparing for legal dissolution. We met with city leaders, and though they expressed sympathy, they were not willing to save the orchestra and were prepared to accept dissolution. This could never happen in Cleveland and Cincinnati, but we learned that it can in Columbus.
In negotiations, there is a basic assumption that both sides of the table want the orchestra to survive and thrive, but what do you do when the other side gives up and is willing to cease operations and dissolve? This was the reality that the CSO musicians were forced to face and deal with. So, instead of losing the orchestra permanently, the musicians made the pragmatic and painful decision to negotiate what we called a “life boat” contract with the board, designed to give the musicians time to decide and act upon possible professional and life changes. We accepted annual economic cuts of 20% and we resumed operations in January 2009 after seven long months.
After cutting millions from the budget, we expected donors and ticket buyers to return and resume their previous support, but most of them did not. Because of the public battle from the previous year, the philanthropic, corporate, and political city leaders did not trust the orchestra. Without their critical support, it did not take long for the orchestra to find itself in the same terrible situation again only one year later. In February 2010 we learned from management that there was enough cash to continue only through the end of the month. Management and the board concluded that Columbus would not support the orchestra, and they intended to begin dissolution without asking the musicians for more cuts.
A few days later, however, we learned that the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts (CAPA), a very large institution which owns all of the major venues in Columbus and brings touring shows to the city, was willing to discuss taking over management of the orchestra, but only on a much smaller scale, which would mean more cuts from the musicians. CAPA would extend a large line of credit to the orchestra in order to avoid another shutdown. Because this all occurred only a year after the lock out ended, the musicians decided, for the same reasons as before, to accept another cut of 20%.
In the years that followed some musicians left the orchestra for better jobs in other cities. Some left music and began new successful careers. Many musicians who remained found or created new additional income sources. There were also musicians who sadly lost marriages and suffered financial disasters. For the next seven years, the CAPA-managed orchestra stabilized with minimal budget growth. The orchestra finished every year in the black in large part due to the severe musician cuts. The goal was to accumulate a significant cash reserve as a large safety net against possible disasters in the future, and that goal was achieved. Along the way in 2013, for complicated reasons unique to our orchestra, we agreed to end employer group health insurance in favor of a stipend for musicians to purchase individual policies under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). At first this was successful, but for political reasons beyond our control, the ACA policies soon failed to meet our needs and created further stress for the musicians.
But by the beginning of this year, significant changes had occurred. While CAPA continues to provide management support, they no longer make critical decisions for the CSO. The leadership of CAPA and the CSO has also changed completely. This last factor more than any other is responsible for the beginning of recovery. The new leadership continues to be financially conservative, but they also believe that the CSO needs to grow in order to become stronger and more relevant to the city. They are raising money for an endowment, and they agreed without obligation to restore employer group health insurance last spring, before our previous contract expired. Work weeks will be gradually added during the term of our new contract, which will have the effect of increasing annual wages by about 3.5% each season. In the last year, the minimum annual salary will be $44,380. We still have a long way to go towards recovering completely and becoming an institution that the city will always support. This beginning of recovery provides a small quantum of hope for us, but hope nonetheless.
Note: The Author is a bassoonist in the Columbus Symphony Orchestra and the President of Local 103.