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Pittsburgh Symphony musicians OK 3-year contract

Wednesday, September 24, 2003

By Caroline Abels and Andrew Druckenbrod, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

The musicians of the deficit-ridden Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra ratified a three-year contract yesterday that calls for a 7.8 percent wage cut for the first two years and a major wage increase in the 2005-06 season.

The third-year increase -- considered risky by some -- will bring the PSO musicians' salaries to 95 percent of the average of the wages at the Chicago, Cleveland, New York and Philadelphia orchestras, all of whom negotiate contracts in the next year. Those orchestras are considered to be on the same artistic level as the PSO.

"The agreement we reached has risk and commitment on both sides," said musicians' spokesman Zachary Smith. "It attempts to recognize the financial problems we are facing now and maintain the artistic quality of the orchestra and be true to the artistic aspiration."

Thomas Todd, president of the PSO board of directors, refused to say how much money the orchestra will save through the salary cuts. In May the management proposed cutting $1.5 million from the musicians' salaries this season.

"It's not what we asked for [in May] but it's what we need," Todd said. He added that he is "overjoyed" by the settlement.

Industry experts focused yesterday on two of the contract's more intriguing aspects: the third-year wage increase and the limit on the music director's power in hiring players.

"It seems risky," Kate Bronfenbrenner, professor of labor relationships at Cornell University, said of the delayed wage increase. "[But it] is not uncommon in labor. Unions try for pattern bargaining. They will do a survey to show what like companies pay, and figure out something like that."

Joe Beiro, a former PSO orchestra manager, said the agreement to use other orchestras' salaries as the benchmark doesn't take into consideration regional issues that might affect the PSO's financial situation three years from now.

"There are many similarities between orchestras, but there are also striking differences in the needs of the different communities where they are," Beiro said. "So when I hear that our situation may be tied to other communities, that concerns me. ... What if you don't come up with a situation [in three years] that is financially attainable?"

Todd would not say whether the PSO agreed to the third-year wage increase because it is anticipating a stronger national economy three years from now or an improved financial situation at the PSO.

"I believe that if we are able to execute our business plan, we'll be in a position to meet those [salary] obligations," he said. "Our budget has a number of assumptions in it, and we think they're reasonable and can be met."

"We wouldn't have agreed with anything that wouldn't allow us to continue at a top level," said Smith. Many musicians have said repeatedly that they are as concerned about the artistic level of the group as about their wages. "It is not about the money, but the reputation."

The base salary for the first two years will drop from about $90,000 to roughly $83,000, but could rise to $103,000 in the third year, based on projected increases in the salaries of the four other orchestras. The contract is retroactive to Sept. 1 and expires on Aug. 31, 2006.

The contract ratified yesterday is similar to the one agreed upon in 1994, the last time the PSO faced significant financial challenges. That fall, management and musicians agreed to a four-year wage freeze, followed by a 24.4 percent salary increase in the 1997-98 season. When the salary increase kicked in, the stock market -- in which the PSO's endowment is primarily invested -- was providing strong financial support for the orchestra.

It is possible that PSO management could ask the union to reopen the new contract before the wage increase kicks in. The precedent of reopening contracts exists in a number of industries. In 2000, US Airways and its unions reached a "parity plus 1" contract agreement that called for its unions to eventually make 1 percent more in wages than competitors American, Delta, Northwest and United.

For several reasons, ranging from other airlines raising wages to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the US Airways contract was reopened.

"For us, the 'parity plus 1' conceptually worked but practically didn't, as the other carriers negotiated contracts that called for higher pay and we had to pay 1 percent more [than] the average," said David Castelveter, spokesman for US Airways. "We reopened negotiations with all of our unions to bring down the costs."

Another aspect of the contract that interests analysts is the removal of the music director's veto power in auditions. Instead, the maestro is given only a single vote when deciding with the musicians whom to hire.

"Wages is just one issue," Bronfenbrenner said. "Often control issues have been center stage. They are getting a major increase in their working conditions."

"It is not a power grab, but an artistic issue," Smith said. "It recognizes the modern-day role of a conductor. It's responsibility, and more and more it is lying with the musicians. Now is a perfect opportunity to do this with a music director leaving. It is not a slap at Mariss Jansons."

The musicians will be required to work an extra two weeks a year, reducing their total number of vacation weeks to eight from 10. The two weeks will be devoted to revenue-producing services and a concert to benefit the musicians' pension fund.

"What made the negotiations difficult is the size of the problem, not the traditional labor struggle," Smith said.

Caroline Abels can be reached at or 412-263-2614. Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at or 412-263-1750.

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