A midnight deal: PSO concerts resume after two-month labor dispute
December 4, 2016 12:12 AM
Musicians from the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra joke as they clear the stage after "The Music Has Returned!" — the orchestra's first concert at Heinz Hall in two and a half months.
Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and their music director, Manfred Honeck, stand for a standing ovation at the conclusion of their performance at The Music Has Returned! at Heinz Hall on Friday.
The audience gives a standing ovation to the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra before "The Music Has Returned!" —Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s first concert at Heinz Hall in two and a half months.
By Elizabeth Bloom / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
As their final meeting finished, the people responsible for resolving the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s long and bitter labor dispute stood up from their chairs and shook hands. The contract they had just brokered wasn’t so much an 11th-hour deal as it was a midnight one.
The two groups had gathered at One Oxford Centre, where the Pittsburgh office of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service is located, at noon on Nov. 18. Their task was to settle on a new contract for the PSO musicians, who had been on strike since Sept. 30.
They didn’t leave for more than 12 hours, discussing the terms in small clusters and altogether. Except for some pretzels provided by the federal mediators, the management side didn't eat much that day. Board chairman Devin McGranahan had returned that morning from Houston. At some point, the thermostat kicked on, and one room became overheated. The Light Up Night fireworks show came and went. When it was all over, the musicians went to a bar and had some drinks to talk things over.
After several months of unsuccessful discussions, the group finally reached a tentative agreement. The board discussed and voted on the new contract at a retreat the following morning, the musicians ratified it over the next few days, and the orchestra announced the settlement Nov. 23.
The pact ensured that the PSO would not lose most or all of its concert season, as some other orchestras caught up in nasty labor disputes have. Instead, the sides managed to find a deal that, as both parties have put it, reflects a true compromise. When the ink was dry, PSO president and CEO Melia Tourangeau sent a text message to Mr. McGranahan, who responded with some celebratory emojis.
The emojis aside, no one was especially elated at the terms. The five-year deal requires deep cuts from the musicians, while management recognizes those sacrifices alone will not resolve the orchestra’s financial issues.
“I don’t think either side is exceptionally satisfied with the all-in result,” Ms. Tourangeau said. “But considering everything we were facing, I thought we managed it the very best we could, and we’re going to leverage the concession we received in every way possible to turn around the organization financially.”
The private and public battle that led to the deal has left the organization with some fresh wounds. But even if the various parties weren’t thrilled, at least they could be relieved that this ugly chapter in the symphony’s 120-year history was over. After two and a half months, symphonic music returned to Heinz Hall on Friday.
For a time, it seemed like this work stoppage could have gone nuclear. The rhetoric in the labor dispute quickly had turned ugly, and the sides traded barbs on social media and on their websites. The PSO management insisted on a contract that would slash players’ salaries by 15 percent in the first year, while the musicians’ most recent offer still included pay increases.
The two sides didn’t even meet for about a month after the strike began. Most of the fall concerts had been canceled, and several outside performers had postponed or nixed their own Heinz Hall shows so as not to cross the musicians’ picket line.
“I think that was a real possibility,” orchestra committee chairman Micah Howard said when asked whether the season could have been canceled. “That was a real possibility.”
Help from mediators
The two sides and their lawyers were not slugging it out on their own. Two federal mediators joined the talks in September, shortly before the strike began, and both management and musicians give them credit for helping to resolve the dispute. (Due to confidentiality requirements, federal mediators do not comment on negotiations to the press.)
With help from the federal mediation service, the PSO was connected with an independent analyst who reviewed the orchestra’s finances and presented his assessments to both sides. Armed with the analyst’s report, the negotiating teams returned to the table and agreed not to talk to the media.
“One of the reasons that both sides were able to compromise the way they did was partially because of that financial review,” said Mr. Howard, who plays the double bass.
From a scheduling standpoint, Mr. Howard described the final negotiation push as a “pressure point.” All sides wanted to settle. The management had already started to trim its own budget, eliminating 10 jobs through layoffs, restructuring and attrition, and was increasing its end-of-year fundraising efforts. The orchestra certainly wanted to salvage the annual holiday pops programs, especially since no other concerts were scheduled until mid-January.
Eager to return to work, the musicians offered to take a 7.5 percent pay cut. But the board was looking for a reduction above 10 percent, Ms. Tourangeau said. The PSO management had kept in touch with its major contributors throughout the process, and an anonymous patron, eager to resolve the dispute, contributed a large gift that made up the difference: This coming year, management will pay musicians 10.5 percent less than last year, but musicians will earn 7.5 percent less.
Over the course of the five-year deal, the players will get back to the base salary they earned last season. The contract also makes changes to the orchestra’s retirement plans and institutes a hiring freeze.
Fans of the PSO cheered the news of the settlement. From the time it was announced through the following weekend, the PSO received nearly 500 online donations, Ms. Tourangeau said.
“I think the real priority during this next couple of years is garnering all the community support that we’ve seen through the strike and pivoting it toward the fundraising that’s needed now to close the gap,” Ms. Tourangeau said.
In the meantime, the sides said they have reached agreements on how to build trust and dialogue around the organization’s finances. Healing the divide between musicians and management is merely the next step in the new normal at Heinz Hall.
“I do think that’s going to be a long process and something that all sides are going to work on,” Mr. Howard said, “because everything’s raw right now.”
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