There are no bad guys in the labor dispute between the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and its musicians. Each side cares deeply about the organization and the city it enriches. That shared concern now should motivate the parties to get back to the bargaining table and compromise on a new contract.
The musicians, numbering about 100, went on strike Friday. Symphony management says it has delivered its last, best offer and would be happy to meet again if the musicians have ground to give. The musicians say they are willing to continue exploring the issues. That should be enough to get the parties talking again.
A break in negotiations is akin to playing with fire; the future of a world-class symphony is hanging in the balance. Management says it wants to address a structural deficit — totaling about $1.5 million in the most recent year — that threatens the symphony’s viability. The union wants to avoid a 15 percent pay cut and pension changes that it says would imperil the symphony’s ability to attract and retain top talent, turning it into a second-class organization that musicians would treat as a steppingstone rather than a destination. The 15 percent cut would apply to the first year of the three-year contract; musicians would get raises of 2 percent and 3 percent in the second and third years, respectively.
Base pay under the old contract totaled about $107,000, though many of the musicians make more than that. Some other big-city symphonies already have base salaries higher than $107,000, and that is one reason that the union raises the specter of a talent drain. Management says that isn’t likely, given the scarcity of slots at top-ranked symphonies, a compensation package that would remain generous by industry standards and the symphony’s discretion to set salary above the base. The concessions demanded of the musicians would save an estimated $5 million over three years.
The symphony contends that the belt-tightening would give the organization credibility as it seeks more assistance from corporations and foundations — an argument the musicians, who have made concessions in previous contracts, say they have heard before. Melia Tourangeau, symphony president and CEO, said better financial planning, increased ticket prices and more robust subscription rates also are part of the long-term financial strategy. Management says the proposed concessions from musicians would yield only 25 percent of what’s needed to erase the deficit and put the symphony on firm footing.
Management employees should accept salary and benefit cuts along with the musicians. Not doing so undermines the enhanced credibility the symphony seeks with the foundation and business communities. Ms. Tourangeau must clearly communicate management’s willingness to share the sacrifices.
The musicians say it is normal for cultural groups to carry losses from year to year, but management insists it no longer can afford to do so. Over the years, symphony administrators clearly have made some bad decisions with short-term budgeting and marketing. The organization has been through five marketing executives in 10 years. At the same time, despite occasional cuts, the symphony says, the musicians’ pay has steadily increased since the 1980s.
Jeremy Branson, associate principal percussionist, said Pittsburgh not only deserves but also has earned a symphony this good. He’s right. Pittsburgh is a comeback city where pride in the arts should match our love of professional sports. More Pittsburghers should support this cultural treasure.
But first things first. The parties must return to the bargaining table in a spirit of compromise. They are well suited to the task. In hammering out a contract as in performing a symphony, all of the participants must play their parts.