When the Minnesota Orchestra locked out its musicians in October 2012, two considerations weighed high in the board’s mind. One was that Minnesota paid well above the going rate to attract top players. The other was that, a month earlier, players in the Atlanta symphony had agreed after a short lockout to a 14 percent pay cut. The money men of Minnesota reckoned they could quickly force the same sort of deal.
Well, it didn’t work out that way. In part, because the musicians were prepared to sit it out for 15 months until the board gave way and, in part, because a very substantial chunk of the community and the audience saw the need to maintain high wages as a guarantee of player quality. The players felt supported. That encouraged them to hold out.
Atlanta was unimpressed. Despite making a pledge that the 14 percent was a one-time-only cut, the board and president set about planning for a second lockout, stalling through eight months of negotiations with offers the players could only refuse. On the table, we hear, was this:
Year 1: 0 % increase in salary
Year 2: 1% increase in salary
Year 3: 1.5% increase in salary
Year 4: 2% increase in salary
These tiny increases, however, were to be paid at the expense of deep cuts in the health benefits package which would have left every player worse off. Actual salaries would be the same in 2018 as they were in 2011, but the players would pay much more for their health cover.
What Atlanta was telling its players was that the 2012 one-time-only cut was just a sampler. From now on it was going to be cuts all the way – not just in pay but in jobs as well, with one-third of the orchestra to be removed by natural or unnatural causes.
It was an offer the players had to refuse, and one which the company did not expect them to accept. Labor lawyer Kevin Case writes: ‘As an attorney, I cannot envision any scenario in which I would advise my musician or union clients to accept the kind of demands the ASO is making. […] It makes a mockery of the protections afforded by the National Labor Relations Act and the entire scheme of federal labor law.’
Atlanta planned its lockout for eight months and was ready with all the PR and legal paraphanalia the moment midnight chimed.
The threat to Atlanta’s players is graver and more heartless than Minnesota. They have been lied to and belittled and locked out. Their families cannot get health protection. They have fewer opportunities for other employments than the well-known and well-connected musicians of Minnesota. They are under extreme pressure to cave in.
But if Atlanta’s musicians give way, other hardline boards will take heart. As in October 2012, the next orchestral lockout will be but a heartbeat away. If Atlanta’s musicians surrender, music across America will be the poorer for it.