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Home » Orchestra News » Baltimore Symphony Musicians Fight for Their Orchestra

Baltimore Symphony Musicians Fight for Their Orchestra


by Mary Plaine, Secretary-Treasurer of Local 40-543 (Baltimore, MD)

Baltimore Symphony
Baltimore Symphony Musicians, members of Local 40-543, play a pre-concert pop-up in the Strathmore Hall lobby to raise awareness. This photo was taken after management took away their music stands, explaining that they were not authorized to use them because it was not a BSO-sanctioned event.

Although Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO) management made noises about early negotiations during the 2017-2018 season, they chose instead to invite the musicians, members of Local 40-543 (Baltimore, MD), to participate in a strategic planning process. When the content of the plan suddenly took a sharp turn, the musicians objected strongly to the report’s new focus on financial stability and the lack of any substantive discussions of the orchestra complement, currently experiencing more than 20 vacancies. The report has now apparently been secretly adopted by the BSO’s board of trustees, behind the backs of the musicians.

Baltimore Symphony

Management had requested a bargaining date in late June but then canceled it with a 24-hour notice. An informal exploratory meeting between the two sides in July yielded no positive results. The August vacation, along with a tour to Great Britain, prevented any real negotiations until September 6—three days before the contract was due to expire. At this session, management proposed an extension until January 15. The musicians offered a slightly different four-month extension, with restoration of the complement to the agreed upon 83 full-time positions. Musicians then also offered to discuss a long-term progressive deal. Management said no. 

BSO musicians began their new season without a formal extension in place. The musicians continued to show up for work and distributed leaflets prior to their concerts, alerting patrons to the fact that the orchestra was working without a contract and asking supporters to follow the musicians on their social media sites.

When BSO musicians sat down at the bargaining table October 30 for only their second negotiating meeting (the first since their contract expired September 9), they were walked through a complete rewriting of their collective bargaining agreement by management’s lawyer. When the union asked to see a “red-line” copy of the proposal, they were handed a 77-page document on which every single page had a change.

This October 30 “shock and awe” proposal included reducing the musicians’ 52-week contract to 40 (including four paid vacation weeks) with the remaining 12 weeks paid at a rate equivalent to the State of Maryland’s unemployment benefit. At minimum, this represents a 17% cut in wages. The proposal also includes the elimination of the summer season, guaranteed relief services, management’s contribution into a 401a retirement account, and all language pertaining to touring.

Management also proposed adjusting run-out language to give it greater scheduling flexibility, reducing personal leave services, and doubling the number of nine-service weeks, along with changes to medical insurance, sick leave, and maternity pay. And although management is telling the public that the changes will not affect their concert experience, classical subscription programs would be reduced from 24 to 18.

Subsequent to the October 30 proposal, the musicians accepted the September 6 extension.

Baltimore Symphony
Brian Prechtl and Melissa Hooper of Local 40-543 distribute flyers and buttons in the lobby of the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall prior to opening subscription concerts in September.

The musicians have found tremendous support in a group of donors who have written a strongly worded open letter to the board. The Baltimore Sun has published letters in support of management’s position written by the BSO board chair (“We Need to Secure the Orchestra’s Future”) and the grand-daughter of the man after whom the BSO concert hall is named (“Time Has Come for Baltimore to Make Hard Choices”). It has also published letters in support of the musicians’ position, by BSO Players’ Committee Co-Chairs Greg Mulligan and Brian Prechtl (“BSO Management Undervalues Musicians”) and another by ICSOM Chair Meredith Snow and President Paul Austin (“BSO Fundraising: a Challenge but Feasible”).

BSO management claims it has lost $16 million in 10 years. The musicians counter that, while the orchestra’s budget grew by 46%, the musicians’ share of those costs rose less than 7%. The union believes that management has done a good job of raising endowment funds, while starving the institution of operating revenue.

BSO management’s proposal would put the burden of saving money squarely on the backs of the musicians, literally. Musicians would pay, not only with reduced wages and benefits, but with more work crammed into fewer weeks, with less access to time off. Not only do the musicians fear losing their world-class status and losing existing players and potential new players to ensembles with stronger contracts, they will have to contend with having fewer full-time players on stage due to increased injuries.

The next scheduled bargaining date is January 7. The extension is due to expire January 15.

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