Sour Notes on the Picket Line as Orchestras Play the Blues

September 19, 1993|By STEPHEN WIGLER

An article about the strike by the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra in last Sunday's Perspective section was unclear about orchestra salaries. The center management and the orchestra agree that the average base weekly pay for each of the 61 ballet musicians is $1,134.91. But the center's and the orchestra's estimates of the total value of the weekly package, including rehearsal pay and various benefits, differ by hundreds of dollars.

The Sun regrets the error.

There will be less music in America this year. The alarming situation at the Kennedy Center is a harbinger.

On Sept. 1 the center's Opera House Orchestra, which plays for ballets and broadway shows, went on strike over wages and work guarantees. It's easy to understand why. The orchestra had been playing under a contract that provided 10 weeks of work at approximately $2,000 a week and the center had offered a new contract that not only would have eliminated wage guarantees, but also proposed to eliminate the orchestra over the next four years.

But it's also easy to see why the center offered such a contract: The previous arrangement called for all 61 players to be paid even when an entire evening of ballet used recorded music. The center wanted eventually to replace the Opera House Orchestra, which is made up of free-lancers, with the National Symphony Orchestra, which is paid for 52 weeks of work and is actually part of the center. The NSO has been playing four times a week to houses that are sometimes less than three-quarters filled. The financially troubled center figured to save more than $1.5 million by slowly replacing the free-lancers with the NSO musicians, who could thereby reduce the number of their classical subscription concerts.


Some of the thousands of people who have been laid off recently by IBM, Westinghouse and Eastman Kodak may wonder what is so terrible about part-time employees being given essentially three years' notice to find new work. But no one goes quietly into the dark night of unemployment. When Opera House musicians struck, the National Symphony musicians honored their picket line, canceling the first two weeks of this season's concerts (and sacrificing two weeks of pay). The NSO leaves Tuesday for a tour of Russia and the republics of the former Soviet Union. When it returns -- if the strike has not been resolved -- it will presumably continue to honor the picket line.

And so will every other American orchestra scheduled to visit the Kennedy Center, including the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, scheduled for Sept. 27, and the Philadelphia Orchestra, which performs two days later. In fact, the NSO, which is now playing without a contract, may strike, too, when it resumes negotiations after the tour. One reason will be that its musicians do not want to play in the pit for ballet performances.

But even if no pickets surround the center on Sept. 29, the Philadelphia Orchestra may not play -- because it may be on strike itself. The orchestra, whose contract expires today, has been offered a new one with increases that the musicians do not deem generous enough. The news on the grapevine is that a strike is almost certain.

Here's more bad news. The Buffalo Philharmonic has suspended operations and dismissed its players. The Honolulu Symphony has canceled its concerts this fall. The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in Minnesota has announced that it will file for bankruptcy if its players do not agree to a restructuring somewhat similar to that proposed at the Kennedy Center. The St. Paul players would incorporate with the Ordway Theater, which is where they play, and with the Minnesota Opera, becoming the resident orchestra for both organizations and thus replacing the free-lancers who have been playing for the opera and who are, of course, on strike.

In the Washington and St. Paul situations, the performing-arts organizations accuse the striking musicians of featherbedding and of having received sweet deals that they can no longer afford. The musicians, in turn, accuse management of union busting.

Who's right? Both sides are.

How did things come to this pass?

Part of the reason is the rising expectations of symphony musicians over the last 30 years. A musician coming to the Baltimore Symphony in the late 1950s could expect a contract that paid about $90 a week for about 20 weeks and that included pitiably poor benefits. Starting players today earn more than $1,000 a week for 52 weeks, including eight weeks of vacation and substantial benefits. Like anyone else who comes to the bargaining table, musicians want to keep what they have and hope to make gains. This has led to contracts at many orchestras that promised large increases in the final year, leaving management to scramble for the money.

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