Philadelphia Orchestra strike ends; contract vote 73-11

Philadelphia Orchestra cellist John Koen, chairman of the players' negotiating team, is greeted by bass player John Hood (right) bringing his instrument back into the Kimmel Center Sunday, after the musicians voted to ratify a new contract.

The Philadelphia Orchestra strike is over.

After meeting late Saturday night into Sunday, negotiators presented a contract to musicians Sunday afternoon at the Kimmel Center, and the new deal was ratified by a vote of 73 to 11, union members said. The contract is contingent upon approval by the orchestra board and the musicians' union executive board this week.

The strike was short - not even 48 hours - but bitter, and began with a touch of drama.

Musicians walked out Friday night as an audience for the orchestra's opening-night gala sat awaiting the players' arrival on stage. A last-minute backstage negotiating session ensued, but failed. The gala concert was scrapped; two other concerts, on Saturday and Sunday, were canceled.

Musicians had been pressing to regain some of the ground they lost during the orchestra's bankruptcy five years ago, when raises were suspended and the size of the ensemble was cut. Management's first contract offer a month ago was for a five-year deal with no raises in the first two years, and 1 percent raises in each of the following three, which musicians dismissed as "regressive."

The new deal, reached with the help of a federal mediator, calls for wage increases of 2 percent in year one, and 2.5 percent increases each in years two and three, which brings base pay to $137,800 in the third year of the contract. Many musicians earn more, and principal players substantially more.

A "musicians' appreciation fund" would grant the potential for additional compensation, up to $5,000 per musician per year, if the orchestra hits certain measures of a financial surplus in those years. But, warned Melvin S. Schwarzwald, the musicians' lawyer: "The chances of this happening are not very great."

The contract in its last year also calls for increasing the size of the orchestra by one member, from the current 96 and two librarians to 97 and two librarians. Musicians agreed to working two additional Sunday concert dates per year, for a total of 12, and arrived at new language that codifies their willingness to assist management in fund-raising and educational activities.

Some players leaving Sunday's meeting expressed disappointment.

"It doesn't get us to our goal in terms of competitive wages or complement" the size of the orchestra, said cellist John Koen, chairman of the members' committee. A five-year deal had been proposed earlier, and this three-year deal means the ability to negotiate for potential gains again sooner, he said. The new contract runs through Sept. 15, 2019.

"It's been a very emotional couple of days, but we're relieved that we're going to move forward and play our instruments again," principal harpist Elizabeth Hainen said.

That will happen next in Verizon Hall on Thursday, when Simon Rattle conducts Mahler.

"There is a lot of work for the orchestra to do," said Ryan Fleur, executive vice president for orchestra advancement. He said he hoped that the work would be made easier by the greater level of collaboration spelled out in the contract for musician participation in fund-raising and education.

As for the issue of compensation, which ended up being lower than that for which musicians had aimed, he said: "Over time, as we are responsibly moving forward, we hope we will be able to continue to give musicians increases as the organization succeeds."

Fleur said he did not see management coming back to players during the term of the three-year contract to reopen it and ask for concessions, as it has done before, and as one deal floated during this negotiation had proposed. "Absolutely not," he said. "We take our obligations very seriously."

It may take both sides some time to smooth the ruffled feathers of donors, volunteers, and ticket-buyers who felt stung by the last-minute cancellation of the opening-night gala concert.

After they walked out Friday, the musicians brought their music onto Broad Street and played. And at least for a time, said Bari Shor of Center City, there was a silver lining: "Probably the best picket-line music ever."

pdobrin@phillynews.com

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