GRAND RAPIDS — Despite negotiating for the past seven months, Grand Rapids Symphony musicians and the organization’s management team have yet to agree to terms of a new contract.
Talks between the two parties continue, and the orchestra has maintained all programs since Aug. 31, 2015, when the contract they had been working under for four years expired.
For their part, the players’ union remains determined to parley until certain conditions have been met, according to Paul Austin, co-chair of the Negotiation Committee of the Grand Rapids Federation of Musicians Local 56.
“It takes time to work out the details when you are committed to moving forward, but we want to ensure that this community has the orchestra it deserves,” he said.
Specifically, the musicians are asking for a return of some benefits sacrificed in previous contracts. In 2009, following the recession, the orchestra was forced to cut two weeks from its season, halt employer 401(k) contributions, and reduce musicians’ salaries by 9 percent to 14 percent. In 2011, musicians agreed to a one-year wage freeze, with 2-percent to 3-percent increases in the following years.
Now, Diane McElfish Helle, co-chair of the Local 56 Negotiation Committee, said the musicians are fighting to reinstate the 401(k) contributions, asserting that “of the top 50 orchestras in the country, 49 of them have employer contributions.”
“There’s one group that doesn’t — that’s us,” she said.
Nearly every symphony in the nation was forced to make similar reductions in the wake of the recession. The Detroit Symphony Orchestra, for instance, cut minimum salaries by $25,000, reduced the playing season by 12 weeks, and lost 15 full-time positions in 2011. With the most recent contract, however, those positions, benefits and salaries are recovering, according to a statement from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
Grand Rapids musicians aren’t just settling for recovering what they’ve lost. They’d like to see growth in both benefits and personnel beyond even their status prior to the recession. Helle said that 30 of the symphony’s 80 positions have remained part-time for over a decade, despite the players doing what amounts to full-time work.
“They’ve been sitting there doing the same job, working the same hours, next to people that are getting the full-time benefits and salaries,” she said. “Is that sustainable? Of course not.”
At one point, the symphony was reportedly considering cutting 11 full-time musicians for the new contract, a position it later dropped.
While symphonies in other cities have been forced into long, controversial labor disputes, Helle said negotiations in Grand Rapids have remained amiable.
“We’re not throwing rocks back and forth here. We’re taking our time because we all want to be responsible,” she said. “I do think the board has people of goodwill.”
Rather than resort to a strike or lock-out, “which is the business equivalent of going to war,” Helle said that she and her fellow musicians would prefer to just skip to the end where the conflict is resolved and the community of players remains intact, even if the process takes longer. She acknowledge that growing as an organization can be “scary for businesses” like the symphony.
The unusual nature of the business model also complicates the discussions, according to Helle. Symphonies generally rely on support from donors, patrons and government agencies, as ticket sales don’t supply enough revenue on their own. As such, contract negotiations involve some amount of forecasting for potential donations.
Peter Kjome, executive director for the Grand Rapids Symphony, declined to comment on the proceedings, but he maintained that the orchestra would carry on business as usual.
“Discussions continue, but talks haven’t affected our programs,” he said in an e-mail to MiBiz.
While the process at times has reached a standstill because of the busy orchestra season, Helle said negotiations were expected to pick up again as this report went to press. The musicians will continue to fight until they’re satisfied that the symphony will grow in size and finances, especially with the search for a new music director underway, she said. The previous director, David Lockington, retired last year after a 16-year tenure.
The union’s concern is that the best directors, musicians and critics will only be drawn to a symphony that displays strong growth and places value in its players.
“There has to be that willingness to step forward and commit to a vision. I think any successful business knows that,” Helle said. “This is bigger than just one contract negotiation. This is about a city deciding what it wants its artistic life to be.”