ASO lockout ‘damaging to everybody’

It’s appalling that we are locked out for the second time in two years’

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Photo credit: Joeff Davis/CL File
STANDSTILL: “We are dealing with [ASO] people we suspect have no authority to get a deal done,” says says Jessica Oudin, a viola section player who reps the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Players Association in labor talks.

Atlanta’s premiere classical music season is again threatened by what has become a classic labor dispute. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra locked out its musicians - for the second time since 2012 - on Sept. 7 as contract negotiations failed.

The future looks grim for ASO’s 70th anniversary season, slated to kick off Sept. 25. Last week, the musicians came together, not to play Mozart, but to march a picket line at the Woodruff Arts Center, ASO’s parent organization. With ASO management choosing the hardball tactic of a lockout, the sides weren’t talking as of Friday, and couldn’t even agree on bringing in a federal mediator.

“It’s appalling that we are locked out for the second time in two years,” says Jessica Oudin, a viola section player who reps the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Players Association in labor talks. “At this time, no further meetings are scheduled … because management has not shown a willingness to budge.”

The musicians face a loss of pay and health insurance, but if the season is cut short, that will be “damaging to everybody,” Oudin says.

WAC spokeswoman Holly Hanchey told CL she can’t comment on the ASO labor situation and couldn’t immediately provide anyone who could.

A statement on the ASO website says, “Management remains committed to keeping the dialogue going and bargaining in good faith so that we can work toward a resolution that will ensure that the music will go on. Management wants to assure a vibrant classical music community that can thrive for decades to come.”

But that dialogue isn’t ongoing - including on ASO’s Facebook page. After hundreds of mostly anti-management comments were posted, ASO disabled commenting due to what it called “hateful language, personal attacks and misinformation.”

The lockout is unpopular not only among ASO fans, but also with its conductors, a group that typically steers clear of orchestra labor disputes. Shortly before negotiations failed, ASO Music Director Robert Spano and Principal Guest Conductor Donald Runnicles issued an unusual open letter to ASO management, musicians, and supporters, imploring them to reach agreement and not cut too deeply.

“The concept that stopping the music - whether characterized as lockout or strike - as a reasonable alternative is unfathomable, deeply divisive, and would be a tragic mistake,” Spano and Runnicles wrote. “Sustainability must also be applied to a quality of the orchestra and the notion of excellence, not only to finances. There are artistic lines that cannot and must not be crossed.”

Both sides agree that the ASO is facing a long-term existential threat. The disagreement is about the cause and the solutions. Management says it must chop the budget to end 12 years of deficits, caused in part by a national trend in declining support for classical music. The musicians say management is inept and pruning the ASO too far to ever grow successfully.

The current dispute is just a continuation of the bitter 2012 lockout, when musicians finally salvaged the season by agreeing to brutal cuts. Back then, both sides took big pay cuts, and the musicians agreed to a 10-week summer furlough that forces them to get outside work. In addition, the orchestra’s membership was slashed from 95 to 88, and staff was cut as well.

Oudin says musicians agreed to those “incredible concessions” under the impression they were one-time reorganizations. The cuts did slash the ASO’s deficit from $20 million to about $2.6 million, but that was still higher than expected. ASO says that’s why more cuts are needed. The musicians say that’s management “not living up to their end of the bargain.”

In eight months of negotiations this year, the musicians basically demanded their salaries back, with a 15 percent increase in a five-year deal. They also want the full orchestra membership restored.

Management offered pay increases up to 4.5 percent in a four-year deal, but also with massive health insurance contribution increases. They also offered buyouts to about one-third of the musicians, which Oudin calls a “thinly veiled” attempt to shrink the membership beyond its near-minimal level.

Oudin admits the musicians’ offer would add to the red ink. But, she says, if everyone offered buyouts said yes, it would cost even more.

“It’s particularly egregious they have funds … to buy out musicians of the Atlanta Symphony Orchsetra, but cannot find similar or slightly reduced funds to support the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra,” Oudin says. “We function like a highly trained sports team. You need a minimum number of players on the field to have any shot at winning.”

Another obstacle is the ASO’s unusual position as a division of the WAC rather than a standalone organization. The ASO says it’s a boon, with WAC covering $3.7 million in behind-the-scenes costs. But the musicians view WAC as a mysterious puppet master, blaming it for causing the 2012 lockout by scuttling an earlier agreement. In earlier negotiations, Oudin says, a WAC executive was always in the room.

“Woodruff Arts Center seems to be the entity that really calls the shots,” she says. “We are dealing with [ASO] people we suspect have no authority to get a deal done.”

Any kind of deal seems unlikely now, but Oudin points to the “eerily similar” situation of the Minnesota Orchestra. A 2012 lockout there lasted 15 months, but ended early this year with a leadership change and massive new support from audiences and sponsors.

“It is entirely possible,” Oudin says, “to turn a tragic situation like this lockout around.”