Lawyers from the musician and management sides of the Philadelphia Orchestra met today with the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service in Washington D.C. The idea is to try to begin resolving some of the differences that have kept a new labor pact from being reached despite many months of talks.
A labor deal is more critical than ever. For one thing, a lot of donors are sitting on the sidelines pending a unified vision of musicians and management. If the orchestra is going to make any real progress in the enormous fund-raising task before it, it needs to do three things: reach a deal with musicians, articulate a mission for the orchestra that can be embraced by funders and the listening public, and emerge from bankruptcy with a plan that signals an equitable and humane solution for all the stakeholders.
There's also some urgency added by the recent filing of a stipulation in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in which management gives notice that it may seek to impose a new contract on players after July 1. If bankruptcy was a "hammer," in the words of one management lawyer, throwing out the musicians' contract and imposing a new one would be the potential dropping of an anvil.
Today's session in D.C. is a chance, at least, for both sides to reveal some bottom line positions. The basic sticking point is the current pension plan, a defined-benefit obligation which management wants to shed and replace with a 403 (b).
Facilitating talks in D.C. is an interesting figure: George H. Cohen. He's a veteran union-side lawyer - at Bredhoff & Kaiser for 40 years - appointed to his current post, director of the FMCS, by President Obama in 2009. His profile received a boost not too long ago when he brokered talks between the N.F.L. and the National Football League Players Association. He's argued five cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. According to his bio, he has negotiated "dozens of collective bargaining agreements in industries as diverse as public education (...instrumental in bringing the bargaining process to Virginia teachers), the rail industry, and the sports (basketball, baseball and hockey) and the entertainment industries."
What might be more relevant here is that he's also no stranger to orchestras. He is a former general counsel with the American Federation of Musicians, and has negotiated deals with the National Symphony Orchestra, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and the Detroit Symphony - as well as an important recording agreement for U.S. orchestras generally. When it comes to the complex world of orchestras and their collective bargaining agreements, he's going to be one of the most knowledgeable voices in this process.
Insiders, though, caution against expecting Cohen to exert a pro-union bias in these talks. He has a reputation as a fair facilitator. Statistically speaking, the chances of a break-through in D.C. are high. According to a recent Los Angeles Times article, about 85 percent of the cases handled by the agency in recent years have ended with agreements.