Symphony Orchestra Labor Proposals Spark Outcry

The Hartford Symphony Orchestra is in the midst of labor contract negotiations, with musicians and management each playing a different tune.

A proposed 40 percent in “services”-that is, rehearsal slots and shows-for members of the Chamber Orchestra has drawn a backlash from the American Federation of Musicians, Local 400 as the symphony scrambles to chip away at a Hartford Courant-reported $1 million deficit.

Currently, the chamber orchestra performs the most services within the Symphony.

Under the existing agreement, the musicians are guaranteed a yearly minimum of 190 services-a number that would be reduced to 100 should management go through with its proposed contract changes.

Even with the current minimum, a Hartford Symphony Orchestra musician makes around $24,000 a year, says Joe Messina, President of Local 400. At 100? That knocks an employee’s annual salary down to $15,000.

“Obviously, even at $24,000, they have to supplement their income,” Messina said over the phone.

Many symphony employees teach in the latter half of the day to earn extra money, but the new contract proposals also include a provision mandating that musicians be available during daytime business hours, rendering other part-time jobs unfeasible, Messina said.

“Why do you need them available all day if you’re going to cut the number of services?” he said. “Now they might make up for it, but if you’re not knowing what you’re going to earn, then it makes it very difficult to commit to the symphony.”

Last April, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra formed an “alliance”-it’s not a merger because the two organizations still operate separately, but share a manager-with the Bushnell Theatre. The cornerstone of the agreement was a pledge to raise money that would go toward closing the deficit, according to Mike Pollard, a spokesman for Local 400.

But the money is not there. Messina says that the union was told that it “wasn’t forthcoming.”

“It seems like it has been more of the usual,” Pollard said. “The Board of the Hartford Symphony has not had an endowment drive in more than 20 years.”

In 2007, the Symphony got advice from consultants recommending that they raise money for their endowment, Pollard said.

Given, at that time, the economy was heading into a recession, but that exemplifies the need to build that fund, he said.

“The economy came back and the still have not had an endowment drive,” Pollard said. “At what point will it pit out again? That’s the whole point of the endowment, so that you can survive an unstable economy.”

As of now, the union continues to negotiate with management. Musicians held a protest in Hartford several weeks ago, but the issue regarding the 40 percent service reduction and revised availability requirements has not been discussed yet, Messina said.

Hartford Symphony Orchestra President and CEO David Fay responded to an interview request with an emailed statement.

“The Hartford Symphony Orchestra has been in the process of transforming its organization into a modern, financially secure orchestra that is providing programming to our patrons that they desire,” Fay wrote in the statement. “Our musicians are professionals, dedicated to their art, and we are hopeful to reach a new agreement with them that gives the organization the flexibility needed to fully implement the tenets of the new Strategic Framework adopted by our Board of Directors this past June, while allowing our musicians to do what they do best, perform. We are very optimistic about the future of the HSO and the musicians helping us bring it to its full potential.”

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