Spokane Symphony strikes

Whitworth faculty participate in the strike over terms of the August 2012 contract renewal

by Jennifer Ingram

The Spokane Symphony announced earlier this month that its orchestra members were going on strike, and as a result all performances would be halted through November.

According to a press release sent out by the Spokane Symphony, the symphony board members and the union representing the symphony musicians were unable to reach an agreement on the terms of the August 2012 renewed contract, despite months of negotiations.

Director of Whitworth’s wind symphony Richard Strauch, who has been a member of the symphony for more than 11 years, said the strike against the new contract happened for three main reasons.

First, the new contract proposed a 13 percent pay cut for core orchestra members, who had already agreed to a voluntary salary freeze in 2009.

Second, the language in the contract includes an extremely restrictive leave policy, making it difficult for the musicians to participate in performances outside of the Spokane Symphony.

The third, and perhaps most troubling issue for the musicians, is a vague, proposed two-year contract agreement. The terms of the agreement are written out for the first year, while the second is blank, leaving employees unsure of the number of services they will be able to participate in, and therefore unaware of how much money they would make in the second year of the contract. Services are made up of rehearsals, educational events or concert performances.

According to a press release by the Spokane Symphony in October, the board members and the musicians’ union met with a federal mediator and while some progress was made, an agreement was not reached. According to the Musicians of the Spokane Symphony website, the orchestra members offered to settle by taking a 5 percent pay cut, and later a 7 percent reduction. The difference in cost between the union’s proposal and the terms of the board’s offer was around $50,000.

The two groups returned to the table on Nov. 1; however, the board remained firm on its previous contract offer. The musicians called for an official strike on Nov. 2.

Whitworth’s professor of bassoon Lynne Feller-Marshall, also a member of the symphony, said not just one person could go on strike. Since the entire orchestra functions as a unit, when the strike was called, all 36 core members and about 30-40 additional contract players were left without work.

“We voted as a group to not accept the contract offered by management,” Feller-Marshall said. “What was offered was so hopeless that we felt that there was simply no choice. The spokesman for the musicians has used the phrase, ‘They forced our hand,’ and I would agree.”

Feller-Marshall also said the contract would serve to discourage other musicians from auditioning for and accepting a position with the orchestra. She said that it was highly unlikely that prospective musicians would knowingly sign a contract that includes zero guarantee of future payment. Strauch agreed.

“No one in their right mind would sign a blank contract,” Strauch said. “For players to feel secure, they need a protected, reasonable compensation package. Otherwise, how can they expect to earn a living in Spokane with a poverty level income and a contract that doesn’t even guarantee some level of compensation in the second year?”

Strauch said that the proposed contract would make it very likely that a number of players may leave the Spokane Symphony to take jobs in other cities that might offer more services and better pay.

“The Spokane Symphony is a fully professional orchestra with accomplished and experienced players,” Strauch said. “People come from all over the world to audition there, many of whom have trained at Juilliard or other top music schools.”

The Symphony orchestra roster lists 89 musicians; 10 are Whitworth faculty members. While professor of percussion Paul Raymond teaches part-time at Whitworth, he made the majority of his income from the services he took part in with the Spokane Symphony. Raymond is one of 36 members that make up the core group of the orchestra, a fundamental part of the symphony.

Raymond said that no one in the orchestra would have primarily chosen to go on strike, but they felt as if a strike was their  only option.

Raymond said the symphony guarantees core musicians will be paid for 180 services. He said while the musicians are being paid for time spent in rehearsals and on stage, the problem is that for every hour spent on the clock three or four hours are spent off the clock in preparation for those services.

“It would be like telling a reporter that they’ll only be paid for the time it takes to type up a story, while all the background research is on the house,” Raymond said.

The new contract drafted by the board would have fewer guaranteed services. Raymond said that the new contract does not specify whether the musicians will be salaried employees, since they do most their work practicing off the clock, or if they will strictly receive per-service payments.

“In 2009 we agreed to freeze our salary increases in order to help the symphony in the harsh economy,” Raymond said. “The symphony is asking musicians from all over the country to stick around Spokane for a $17,000 and now $15,000-a-year salary?”

Raymond said that some musicians employed under the previous contract were hired with the promise of an advertised salary that they have still never seen.

“I hope that [people] realize that symphony musicians are real people, working real, challenging jobs, and that being able to continue to make a living at those jobs is difficult in these times of recession,” Feller-Marshall said. “The arts are vital to the hearts and souls of human beings, and losing the primary arts organization in the region would be a terrible loss indeed.”

A Spokane Symphony press release issued Nov. 7 said that due to the economic pressures along with a decline in income and ticket sales, the symphony board simply cannot support a service guarantee for its musicians anymore. They said the board’s priority is to be a good steward of its limited resources.

Feller-Marshall said that the symphony is not and never has been a for-profit business, and their fiscal responsibility should not be the no. 1 goal of a regional symphony orchestra.

“I appeal to those members of the symphony board of trustees who love this organization and want it to continue: please do whatever is necessary to run this orchestra as the live music-bringing, culture-enriching entity that it is,” Feller-Marshall said.

Raymond said the two groups will be meeting again at the end of the week to negotiate the contract.

“The Symphony board and the orchestra are not enemies, and too often it seems like that,” Raymond said. “We are merely on different sides of an argument, and while it’s not going to be solved immediately, it is a short-term problem.”

Two benefit concerts were held in November to help the musicians pay their health insurance minimums and aid those whose entire livelihood depended on symphony checks. Raymond said in all the 38 years he has played orchestra, the benefit concerts have had the most energy he’s ever felt from a crowd.

“The benefit concert was an amazing experience, and successful beyond our wildest expectations,” Raymond said. “We raised $19,000 and were packed. We had to turn nearly 150 people away.”

The orchestra held an additional concert Saturday Dec. 1 at Westminster Congregational United Church of Christ.

Both sides say they are eager to reach an agreement.

Contact Jennifer Ingram at jingram13@my.whitworth.edu.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *