Inquirer Editorial: Orchestra strike over pay struck a chord with other workers

Philadelphia Orchestra musicians, including cellist Gloria dePasquale, walk the picket line after striking during the opening night Gala at the Kimmel Center Friday, September 30, 2016.

The brief strike by the Philadelphia Orchestra, which forced a settlement in less than 48 hours, helped to illustrate a problem facing millions of American workers besides those who perform compositions by Beethoven and Mozart for a living: wage stagnation.

The musicians unexpectedly walked off the job Friday night, to the frustration of thousands of patrons who had shown up at the Kimmel Center's Verizon Hall for the orchestra's opening night gala. Frenzied negotiations backstage failed to resolve the matter so that the show could go on.

Wages were the primary issue. Raises for musicians were suspended when the orchestra declared bankruptcy five years ago. A new five-year contract to replace the current agreement, which is in its last year, would suspend raises for another two years and grant 1 percent raises in each of the next three.

The strike forced management's hand. A federal mediator helped to negotiate a three-year deal that includes a 2 percent raise in the first year and 2.5 percent raises in each of the next two years. That will boost the musicians' base salary from around $128,000 to about $138,000. Only the orchestras in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco report higher salaries.

The musicians' high level of compensation may make it hard for lower salaried workers to empathize with them. But going without a raise for years is something they have in common. Workers' salaries adjusted for inflation have not reached pre-recession levels in many states, according to census data. In fact, the median household income nationally in 2015 was 2.6 percent lower than in 2008.

Efforts to boost incomes have largely emphasized workers at the opposite end of the spectrum from orchestra musicians. The fastest rate of pay increases has occurred among workers in the bottom quarter of the income scale, who are benefitting from both the movement to set a $15-an-hour national minimum wage and a genuine need for more workers to fill those jobs.

Unfortunately, the Philadelphia Orchestra's needs are of a different variety. Its new contract includes only one new position for a musician, increasing it to 97 members. If that number is ever to return to the 104 musicians that the orchestra had prior to its bankruptcy, it must successfully address two concerns that threaten its future viability - expansion of its audience and more philanthropic support.

A study this year by a University of Maryland consultant noted that 78 percent of the orchestra's philanthropy comes from just 2 percent of its donors. The study also suggested a more diverse board that better represents the city's demographics, and new programming, technology, and events to attract different audiences. Having secured a new contract, the orchestra should speed up its tempo for innovation.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly indicated Bach had composed symphonies. He did not.