After a musicians’ strike and the cancellation of fall and early winter concerts, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra is back in business. The settlement announced Wednesday came about because of compromise from both sides, not to mention a remarkable offer from an unidentified donor.
Now, with a five-year contract in hand, the parties should work together to build support for this top-shelf orchestra. The strike must be a one-time affair. An organization that depends on the public’s goodwill cannot risk alienating patrons or donors with chronic labor problems.
Citing deep financial problems, PSO management had asked the 99 musicians for a 15 percent pay cut, to be followed by raises of 2 percent and 3 percent in the second and third years of a three-year agreement. Management also requested that the group move from a defined-benefit pension plan to a defined-contribution model. The musicians walked out Sept. 30, arguing that pay cuts would make it more difficult to attract and retain talent, putting the quality of the orchestra at risk.
While the new contract calls for a 10.5 percent pay cut in the first year of the agreement, the musicians will see only 7.5 percent less in their paychecks because an anonymous donor — could this happen anywhere but Pittsburgh? — stepped forward to cover the difference. The musicians will see a pay freeze in year two of the agreement, followed by a raise of 3.3 percent in year three, an increase of 2 percent in year four and restoration of full salaries in year five. Base pay under the previous contract totaled about $107,000, although many musicians made more. The settlement also calls for a transition to a defined contribution plan.
With Heinz Hall quiet, Pittsburgh was poorer this fall, and musicians, management and the public got a hint of what Pittsburgh would be like without the PSO. The musicians held a number of performances on their own, however, and the public responded enthusiastically. That is a good sign that the strike did not sour the public.
The difficult work of building more support now begins. Melia Tourangeau, symphony president and CEO, had said that concessions from the musicians would be the buy-in needed to leverage more assistance from funders. She got what she asked for. The organization also must follow through with plans to boost subscription rates and improve financial planning. Most important, it must find a way to draw a more diverse crowd without alienating its staple older clientele.
Another essential document guiding the future will be the financial report from an independent analyst, jointly commissioned and paid for by the musicians and management in October. If both sides agree to the reality it describes, they can take the hard steps necessary to maintain the PSO’s health as a top-level orchestra.
The orchestra is celebrating the end of the labor dispute with free concerts — titled “The Music Has Returned! — Dec. 2 and 4. Also, Highmark Holiday Pops will be held as previously scheduled Dec. 9 to 18. The holiday season will be brighter with the musicians on stage instead of the picket line.