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Contract Talks For Symphony At Virtual Impasse

September 06, 1986|HILLIARD HARPER | San Diego County Arts Writer

SAN DIEGO — The San Diego Symphony Orchestra and its musicians have reached a virtual impasse in their contract negotiations.

When the three-year contract expired Sunday, there was no strike and no lockout, but neither side is budging from its stated position. The musicians have seven concerts remaining before the current season scheduled by the symphony draws to a close.

The musicians had hoped to continue to be paid at the old contract rates, but to underline its position of fiscal responsibility, management revoked that contract. (It could have been kept in force by mutual agreement.)

Although the players filed a grievance with the National Labor Relations Board when management quit honoring the terms of the old contract, management has since offered to make a "good faith" payment to the players on Sept. 15. It is not based on the previous 45-week contract, but the shortened one that management insists the players agree to for next season.

The real issue on the table, spokesmen from both sides say, is not this kind of skirmishing, but whether the symphony can afford to keep the high-quality orchestra that has developed in the last five years.

Symphony President Herbert Solomon is adamant that the symphony create and maintain an image of fiscal responsibility: "We are not going to be able to solve our financial challenges without the musicians' taking a step backward in terms of their compensation."

The musicians do not intend to take that step.

"They're asking for a $500,000 decrease--the amount some people pay for a house," player representative Greg Berton said. Berton is outraged that the board of directors wants the players to give up the gains achieved under the contract that just expired.

Those gains include pay increases that raised the minimum weekly pay scale to $472 from $435 over three years and expanded the season from 34 to 45 weeks. The biggest increases occurred during the 1985-86 season, when the minimum scale jumped to $472 from $445 and the season was expanded to 45 weeks from 38. Over the last three years minimum salaries rose from $15,220 to $21,240.

Now, Solomon says, the symphony can only afford to pay the musicians for 38 weeks, a 15.5% salary cut for the players.

"If we succumb to the short-term musicians' desires, we'll never solve our long-term problems," he said.

But other factors complicate the situation, making the seven weeks only part of the impact on the players. To accept a 45-week symphony contract in 1985-86, the musicians gave up playing for the San Diego Opera season. For the 1986-87 season, "tutti" musicians playing at base scale for the four operas will earn $4,800, an opera player said.

"That was 10 weeks we could count on" in addition to the symphony season, Berton said. "The community can't expect us to play music for salaries we can't live on. Mr. Solomon says it's as if we were playing like last year's level. But that's not so." It's more like late-1970s pay levels, Berton said, noting that some musicians lost "a couple thousand dollars" by not playing for the opera last year.

Solomon denied the situation is so cut and dried: "I do know that all the musicians did not play for the opera in the past, and some of the musicians will play for the opera in the present, but that's not the issue. The issue is: We can only pay them with the money we have."

Solomon doubts that the symphony can repeat last season's fund-raising successes in the coming 12 months. In addition to operating revenue that totalled $6.4 million, $7.6 million was raised, primarily in the 1985-86 season in the form of "non-recurring" contributions such as the Symphony Hall capital campaign, the gala event that opened the hall, and contributions in response to a financial crisis last spring.

"If we eliminate the non-recurring income, we would have a deficit of over $1.5 million this year," Solomon said. "That's what our 45-week season did to us. The only reason we didn't is because of our gala and the crisis campaign. We will not allow ourselves to get back into that position."

Solomon says he has the musicians' own good in mind: "They're the reason we exist. We're not trying to hurt them. It grieves us to ask for cutbacks."

Berton agrees that something is wrong with symphony finances, but says the answer lies in administrative and production expenses--not musicians' pay, which the American Federation of Musicians contends is the lowest of any major orchestra in the country.

Berton cited figures from the American Symphony Orchestra League, indicating that although the symphony does not have an endowment income, it has the third-highest percentage of income from ticket sales among major orchestras. According to Berton, over the last 10 years growth in the symphony's concert income and contributed income has significantly outstripped increases in expenses.

Solomon challenged the accuracy of some of Berton's figures, saying the symphony league's numbers do not always match those of the symphony. He has assigned Wes Brustad, who began work Tuesday as executive director, to examine "every single expense line on the budget" to see where cuts can be made.

Meanwhile, the new season starts in seven weeks, and neither Berton nor Solomon gives any indication that his side will back down. As for the possibility of a strike, Berton said: "We will be prepared--absolutely--and try to avoid it."

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