Musicians stage job action amid threat of orchestra bankruptcy filing

With the Philadelphia Orchestra board slated to vote Saturday on a Chapter 11 filing, an orchestra member hands out fliers opposing bankruptcy to the audience before a concert Thursday night at Verizon Hall.

In a bit of theater in support of organized labor, musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra gathered on stage for their usual Thursday night concert, and then, minutes before curtain time, fanned out into the audience with leaflets pleading their case with the listening public.

All was cordial, with smiles and handshakes, as the players even snagged late arrivers in the plaza outside the hall. They returned to the stage to a rousing ovation from the audience and waved their instruments in response.

The action was the first overt distress signal from talks between musicians and management that began in October and that now appear headed for a showdown Saturday morning, when the orchestra board is slated to take a vote on filing Chapter 11.

If the board votes yes - and if the Philadelphia Orchestra Association actually goes through with the filing - the ensemble would acquire some infamy as the first major U.S. orchestra to opt for bankruptcy.

Musicians are vehemently opposed to the move. They plan to press their case Friday morning in a meeting with Mayor Nutter and intend to stage other demonstrations in coming days.

"A vote for bankruptcy is unnecessary and will have both an immediate and a long-term devastating impact on your Orchestra," says the leaflet.

Management fears a strike, but players Thursday said the music would continue.

The current contract, which runs through Sept. 18, contains a no-strike clause, and musicians intend to honor it - unless the contract is set aside in bankruptcy proceedings, said members' committee chairman and cellist John Koen. "At that point, the strike clause is not in effect. We would have to make a decision on what is the right thing to do."

No talks have taken place since March 27, players said, and none are scheduled.

A spokeswoman for management declined Thursday to answer questions.

Management's last offer was a base minimum salary in the first year of $104,000 - a 16 percent cut from the current $124,800 minimum and 20 percent lower than a previously scheduled (and canceled) raise that would have had players earning a minimum of $131,000. Most players earn more - some much more.

By placing financial restructuring and contract negotiations under the supervision of bankruptcy court, management is betting it can relieve itself of a pension-withdrawal liability of about $25 million - the amount the association would be required to pay for withdrawing its participation from the program. Musicians and their lawyers, however, say they believe that a bankruptcy judge would likely order the orchestra to use its endowment, with a current market value of about $140 million, to satisfy any pension obligations.

Susan Martin, the musicians' attorney in labor negotiations, said orchestra managers had created a "self-fulfilling prophecy. They have gone to donors and explained that they have significant pension problems, which were overblown and incorrect, and donors in turn have said, 'We're not going to fund you until you fix these pension problems.' "

Several area foundations are considering their support for the orchestra's recovery plan.

"There's not a single problem facing the Philadelphia Orchestra that cannot be solved outside of the bankruptcy process," said Martin. "Bankruptcy would be incredibly damaging. It will damage the stature and reputation of this cultural jewel of Philadelphia."

Koen said the threat of Chapter 11 has impelled at least four players to entertain invitations from other orchestras to audition.

Are any musicians seriously considering leaving the Philadelphia Orchestra, long considered a member of the international elite?

"I think that will depend," he said, "on the board's actions in the next several days."


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