BSO votes to freeze wages to fight deficit

Concessions to save $3 million in 2 1/2 years

April 04, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Musicians of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra have voted to accept a wage freeze and other financial concessions over the next 2 1/2 years to help the organization deal with its financial troubles. The move, which will save the BSO about $3 million, comes midway through the musicians' current five-year contract.

"It was a difficult and painful consideration," players committee chairman Jeffrey Stewart said yesterday, "but a solid majority felt it was necessary to sacrifice in the short term for long-term financial security. That's not to say there weren't some people deeply disappointed."

BSO management began talks with the musicians about two months ago. The agreement, approved by the orchestra Wednesday night, calls for a deferral of pay raises until January 2005. Last month's $50 weekly raise, which the orchestra enjoyed for one pay period, will be rolled back, putting the base salary at $1,400 a week.

Two raises are now scheduled to go into effect in 2005; $100 in January, $215 in July for the last six weeks of the current contract, bringing base pay up to the final weekly scale of $1,715 originally negotiated. The scale was $1,250 when the contract began and would have reached $1,500 by next September.

Payroll savings under the new agreement will total $2 million through the 2004/2005 fiscal year. Additional savings of $989,000 will come from holding open up to six vacancies in the orchestra of just under 100 members, making modifications to the musicians' health plan, delaying an increase in seniority pay raises and delaying an increase in contributions to the American Federation of Musicians' pension plan.

BSO staffers also will see a pay freeze and changes in their health plan, saving the orchestra $654,000.

"It's a major accomplishment and contribution on the part of the orchestra and staff," said BSO president John Gidwitz.

The wage freeze affects administrators as well, said Gregory Tucker, the BSO's vice president of public relations.

The combined package of musician and administration savings of $3.6 million are expected to provide limited deficit relief. Douglas Mann, BSO vice president and chief financial officer, estimates that up to $150,000 may be shaved off the current projected deficit of about $800,000 and "will go a long way toward reducing projected deficits in future years."

The orchestra's finances became cloudy at the end of the 2001/2002 fiscal year, with a deficit of $661,000, the first debt since 1996. In relation to the BSO's annual operating budget of $25 million, the deficits are not as catastrophic as those now facing several U.S. orchestras in an economy that is adversely affecting most of the country's arts communities. But the BSO board of directors is determined to return to in-the-black status as quickly as possible.

"The efforts are not finished," said Philip English, chairman-elect of the board. "They're only beginning. These savings do not solve the deficit. But the sacrifices that have been put forward by musicians and staff go a long way toward achieving financial stability. Now it's the community's turn to step forward."

Stewart said that the players had the community "very much in mind" when they agreed to the concessions. "We hope that by demonstrating our good faith, it will encourage others to respond," he said. "We want to lay a solid foundation for going forward."

"If this doesn't energize community support," English said, "I'll be very surprised."

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