When the Coronavirus Pandemic brought our industry to a sudden halt in March, it became clear that a series of contract-reopening negotiations were soon to follow. The scope of the financial losses experienced by our orchestras meant that many of these negotiations would likely be difficult. This difficulty was only compounded by the incredible uncertainty surrounding when we can begin fulfilling our mission.
Arguably one of the most important tools for any committee facing a tricky negotiation is information, typically provided by an ICSOM Delegate or the AFM Wagechart. Something similar would be helpful and necessary to assist our orchestras going forward, hence the governing board decided to create a document summarizing some of the most salient features of the various contract modifications. The result is the COVID-19 spreadsheet now posted on the ICSOM website. Many thanks to all of our wonderful ICSOM Delegates who sought out and provided all the information quickly and efficiently. We’ll do our best to keep the document current in the coming weeks and months (Note: See the spreadsheet here. Login required).
Looking over the spreadsheet, a few things become clear. First, as of this writing in late May, every orchestra, with the notable exception of the Met, is paying its musicians some substantial part of regular salary, and a little over half are still receiving full pay. Larger-budget orchestras and orchestras who are part of a larger performing-arts institution are trending towards steeper pay reductions than smaller-budget orchestras, generally in the range of 10–30% (with a few outliers). Only six orchestras reported that their cuts were implemented unilaterally by management, and about half of all orchestras have either already ratified a media side letter or are in the process of doing so.
Many orchestras that have avoided furloughs or deep pay cuts have done so in large part due to federal assistance, primarily in the form of forgivable loans under the Paycheck Protection Program. Within the next few weeks, that assistance will have run its course. It is certainly possible that sometime in June many orchestras could find themselves furloughed.
The most important takeaway from all this is that labor relations and prior economic conditions—good or bad—were not reliable indicators of the outcome of COVID-19 agreements. Most managers have avoided implementing cuts, something that may have come as a surprise to some orchestras. So, what does correlate with successful agreements? Clearly, it’s managers who work closely with their musicians.
What does this mean going forward? It’s safe to say a new round of negotiations will commence in the coming months. Workplace safety, media, work rules, and pay will certainly be on the table for discussion. I think it would be a mistake to focus on what our managers might ask for, and instead take the time to form a vision of where we want to go. Forming that vision means an honest evaluation of ourselves pre-pandemic, a clear picture of what we want to be in the world to come, and using that insight to inform the agreements we forge right now. In addition to our most pressing concerns around getting back to work, remember that our old problems like gender and diversity issues, hearing health, workload, and more will all survive this pandemic and continue to plague us for some time. In this time of rebuilding, how will the coming agreements fit into our vision, and can we find ways to rebuild something better than before?
Note the author is an ICSOM Member-at-Large and a member of the Utah Symphony.