The Woodruff Arts Center and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra players announced over the weekend that they’ve reached a new labor agreement, with their much-delayed 70th season slated to begin this week.
The new four-year contract gives musicians a six percent pay increase over the time of the deal, though it includes a pay freeze this year. It also includes a commitment to return the orchestra to 88 players by the end of those four years.
The ensemble's size was one of the major sticking points during contract negotiation, as players argued further cuts would decrease the 27-Grammy-winning orchestra’s national standing. The previous contract had allowed for 88 spots, but through retirements, deaths and departures as a result of the lengthy negotiations the orchestra has shrunk to 77.
“It’s been a hard-fought battle,” said Paul Murphy, a principal violist and head of the musicians’ negotiating team. “We’re thrilled to be back, and I think that the Woodruff Arts Center has demonstrated they want to have a great orchestra in this great city, and that was something I feared was not the case for a while.”
In exchange, the players will pay more for healthcare in a new, high-deductible plan, one of the other issues that stalled negotiations. Before, musicians were paying about $10 a week to cover their families; now they’ll pay about $20.
“The musicians were comfortable that we could make that sacrifice and still maintain quality healthcare for the players,” Murphy said.
However Murphy says players have lost about $16,000 each over the two-month lockout, with some leaving the symphony over uncertainty of its future.
“There are other pieces of this, other pieces of the agreement that will go toward that [salary loss],” said Randy Donaldson, who’s with the Woodruff Arts Center, the orchestra’s managing organization. “But there was certainly some sacrifice made by the musicians over the last couple of months.”
The agreement brings to an end the second ASO musicians lockout in the last two years, though the 2012 lockout lasted only a few weeks.
Despite the new contract, the ASO still faces serious budget issues going forward.
The orchestra has been running in the red since 2001, including a $2 million deficit with a $38 million budget this year.
Donaldson says healthcare savings and having fewer orchestra positions in the first few years will help put ASO back in the green.
“With this new agreement there is a really strong optimism and confidence that we’ll be able to have an economic viability here that we haven’t had for that last 12 years,” Donaldson said.
The orchestra’s first performance is slated for Thursday, six weeks after the season was scheduled to start. On the docket? Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, which includes “Ode to Joy.”