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A sour note in symphony contract negotiations

Posted 7:48am on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2010

Without explanation, musicians of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra abruptly stopped their pre-concert tuning last weekend and rose for what seemed a minute of utter silence.

Many, if not most, in the audience were clueless. Had someone died? Was it a protest?

Those who guessed the latter were closest to the meaning of the collective gesture. The unionized musicians have been without a contract since Aug. 1, and during a mediation session Sept. 30 their representatives rejected the orchestra's proposal for a double-digit pay cut.

"It was a demonstration of silence," said George Dimitri, a double bass player who is on the negotiating team for Local 72-147 of the American Federation of Musicians. "Many in the audience probably didn't understand it at first. By Sunday, there was some applause," Dimitri recalled. "We felt quite sustained by this feeling, this feeling of doing it together."

Orchestra management says it proposed cutting nine weeks from the group's 52-week schedule, effectively cutting pay about 17.3 percent, from $60,000 base pay to less than $49,620, as well as proportionately trimming benefits. The union says it amounts to a 20 percent cut.

At mediation, the musicians made a counteroffer, requesting a 2.5 percent "cost of living" increase from current wage levels this year, and another 2.5 percent hike next year, said Ray Hair, the local's president. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the consumer price index for the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area dropped 0.2 percent for the 12 months ending in August.

"We got absolutely nowhere," Hair said. "We attempted to find some middle ground. We offered to make changes to the bargaining positions we've taken in order to accommodate the company's deficit position."

According to Ann Koonsman, president of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra Association since 1980, overall revenue has dropped by $819,000 since August 2008. Lost revenue includes steep grant cuts from the Arts Council, canceled performances in Waxahachie and Killeen as well as with Texas Ballet Theater and Southwest Baptist Theological Seminary, and a $120,000 decline in ticket sales. At the same time, expenses rose $210,000, Koonsman said.

For the 2010 fiscal year ending July 31, the orchestra incurred a $242,000 loss on its $11.9 million budget, she said. For the 2011 fiscal year, "we are looking at a deficit of between $750,000 and $1 million if we run a 52-week season. We must live within our budget."

Despite the red ink, Hair asserted that by another measure -- the balance of the orchestra's endowment, which contributes 6 percent of its value annually to supplement other revenue -- it's fiscally healthy. He said the endowment is nearly $30 million. "That's more than it had in 2003," he said.

Koonsman paints a different picture. She said the endowment has been shrinking and is down to $25.6 million from $29.6 million a year ago.

The financial situation necessitated laying off four nonmusician staff members, as well as a pay freeze and an end to matching 401(k) retirement plan payments for remaining administrative employees, Koonsman said. She said musicians got a 3.4 percent wage hike in fiscal 2009 and 2.7 percent the year before.

Wage talks, she said, have been "very difficult because our musicians tend to be in denial of the economic realities that we're all in.

"The Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra is not the only one having a tough time," she said. "We're told, 'It's not Detroit or Beirut.' Of course, it's not. ... But, nonetheless, Fort Worth has its own set of financial setbacks."

That said, the orchestra is adding two full-time musicians, which Koonsman said has been in the works for 18 months and would bring the total to 65 full-time and seven part-time. That's up, she said, from 40 full-time and nine part-time five years ago.

The new hires were required by the contract with Music Director Miguel Harth-Bedoya, who, Koonsman said, recognizes the hardships.

"He walked into my office last summer and voluntarily gave back $25,000," she added. And he's forfeited $50,000 more this year, she said. According to the orchestra association's federal income tax filing for the year ending July 31, 2009, Harth-Bedoya received total compensation of $337,552, including $309,279 in base salary.

No new mediation session is scheduled.

"We're in limbo," said Hair, the union leader. "We've requested mediation."

"There's always room for compromise," Koonsman said. "But not to the extent the union is seeking for a settlement," she said. "We don't have a donor waiting in the wings with a checkbook. We are dependent on the good will of the public, and the public also has issues with the economy."

Barry Shlachter, 817-390-7718

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