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Pittsburgh Symphony musicians go on strike; concerts canceled

| Friday, Sept. 30, 2016, 10:09 a.m.

Picketing replaced rehearsal and performance at Heinz Hall on Friday as the musicians of the deficit-ridden Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra went on strike for the first time in 41 years.

In a vote on Thursday, the musicians unanimously rejected management's “final offer” for a new contract, to replace the one that expired Sept. 5.

The strike has forced the cancellation of a popular Symphony Pops concert series — “The Music of John Williams” — scheduled this weekend. Ticket holders may request a refund, exchange tickets for concerts later in the 2016-17 season or donate them to the symphony.

The only thing the two parties agree on is that the future of the symphony is at stake in the current dispute.

At issue is management's proposal for a major restructuring of the terms of employment, which musicians assert would “destroy the very institution that management has been charged with preserving.”

The symphony's management asserts its proposal is necessary to preserve the institution. “When new management stepped in at the Pittsburgh Symphony, we undertook a diagnostic situation assessment that caused us to realize that we are facing an imminent financial crisis. That assessment showed that, due to a combination of forces, we would run out of cash and have to close the doors in May/June 2017,” board chairman Devin McGranahan said in a prepared statement. McGranahan and President Melia Tourangeau took office in 2015.

Management's proposal calls for a 15 percent pay cut, from $107,239 to $91,153, and a “hard freeze” of the pension plan, in which musicians with less than 30 years of service would no longer accrue benefits and would be switched to a 401(k) plan. It also would change the procedure for deciding whether to replace musicians who leave, which has been decided through contract negotiations.

“At issue is the artistic integrity of this organization,” said percussionist Jeremy Branson on the picket line. “It's been 120 years of a world-renowned artistic institution that is now at the highest quality it's ever been.

“That's what's at stake. That's what we're defending.”

The symphony ran a $1.5 million deficit on a $32 million budget for the 2015-16 season. It projects a comparable deficit for the current season. Its last balanced budget was for the 2007-08 season.

Management's assessment shows the symphony facing a $20.4 million cash deficit over the next five years. It has $11 million in debt between a fully extended $6 million line of credit and $5 million in pension loans. It estimates $10.4 million in cash will be needed for the pension fund over the next five years.

The symphony has exhausted the unrestricted portions of its endowment and is drawing 7 percent, the maximum legally permitted.

The musicians, pointing to increased ticket sales and donations to the annual fund, dispute management's projections and assert they are “needlessly alarmist ... inflating its forecast liabilities and understating its potential revenue.” They see the contract proposal as an “ideological stance of seeking to impose ‘a new business model.' ”

“They want a different orchestra, a regional rather than world-class orchestra,” horn player Zachary Smith said.

Musicians say implementation of management's terms would cause many of the orchestra's “finest musicians” to leave and make it impossible to hire replacements of comparable quality, and that new hires would see the Pittsburgh Symphony as a stepping-stone orchestra rather than looking forward to joining the Pittsburgh community. They report they offered “major” concessions on pay, pension and size of the orchestra to no avail. Micah Howard, chair of the orchestra committee, declined to provide exact figures.

“Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra musicians are exceptional artists and deserve every dollar and benefit we can afford,” Tourangeau said in a prepared statement. “At the same time, at this moment in the Pittsburgh Symphony's history, we absolutely must dedicate ourselves to a course correction to ensure long-term sustainability for the orchestra.”

She admitted during a telephone interview that management's proposal would take the Pittsburgh Symphony out of the top 10 American orchestras in compensation, but said there are plenty of very talented musicians who would be interested in joining the symphony. She said the proposal includes a 2 percent wage hike in the second year of the contract and a 3 percent increase in the third and final year.

Management's proposal for the size of the orchestra retains the 99 performing musicians plus two librarians, but breaks with previous agreements by allowing positions which become open through attrition to be filled at management's discretion, in consultation with the music director.

Negotiations on a new contract began in February and continued after the old contract expired Sept. 5. Musicians agreed to extend the contact to Sept. 18 to permit the symphony's gala concert, the organization's biggest fundraising event of the year, to take place on Sept. 17.

The musicians suggested mediation, but 10 days of effort by the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service failed to produce an agreement.

Both sides expressed the desire to continue negotiations, but no meetings are planned.

Mark Kanny is the Tribune-Review classical music critic. Reach him at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.com.

Steven Adams | Tribune-Review
Clarinetist Victoria Luperi walks her dog Beni in the picket line at Heinz Hall. She is accompanied by bassoonist Nancy Goeres.
Steven Adams | Tribune-Review
Members of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra went on strike on Friday, Sept. 30, 2016.
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