November 10, 2016

Musicians of the Pacific Symphony moved a step closer to a strike late last month when they unanimously rejected management’s latest offer. Musicians and orchestra management have been at the negotiating table since July, hoping to renew their labor agreement, which expired Aug. 31.

Currently, two major U.S. orchestras are in the midst of strikes: the Ft. Worth Symphony, which began Sept. 8, and the Pittsburgh Symphony, which commenced Sept. 30. Both orchestra managements are asking players to take significant pay cuts. The musicians not only rejected those demands, they want to recover cuts made during the 2008 recession.

The Pacific Symphony negotiations are made different by the players’ demands for the orchestra to adopt a new payment structure — one they contend is more closely aligned with orchestras of its budgetary size.

Currently, musicians are paid using what’s known as “fee for service” — which means they are paid a set sum for each rehearsal and concert during the season. It’s a practice similar to other orchestras including the Pasadena Symphony, and there are no guarantees as to the actual number of services to be used.

However, union Local 7 bargaining committee chairman and Pacific Symphony violist Adam Neeley says, “Pacific Symphony musicians, when compared with their colleagues who play in orchestras of similar size and scope, are the only orchestral musicians in the country who don’t have the assurance from year to year of a fixed schedule or annual wage.”

Shifting from a “fee for service” to some sort of guaranteed wage would be a major shift for the orchestra. The sticking point is how to make that happen. From the musicians’ point of view, what management has proposed is too restrictive in terms of earning income outside of PS performances (under the proposal, according to the union, orchestra members could expect to earn $34,807 during the 2016-17 season).

In an email to the Orange County Register, PS Board President John Forsythe wrote: “The board maintains its commitment to a contract that provides stable and meaningful work for musicians while ensuring the long-term sustainability of the organization.”

That reflects similar stances by managements at the Ft. Worth and Pittsburgh symphonies, indeed by managements of all orchestras that have suffered strikes in recent years, including Detroit and Philadelphia.

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