An Inside Look At The SLSO Mediated Negotiations

Update: In the spirit of equal-time, the St. Louis Symphony management have been offered multiple opportunities to express their interpretations of the recent mediated negations, to expand on their positions, and to respond to statements made by the SLSO musician’s representative.  As of 2/23/05 they have respectfully declined that opportunity although the offer continues to remain open.


The mediated negotiations in St. Louis last week had high hopes for producing an agreement among patrons and supporters of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.  It was the first time representatives from the SLSO management and the musicians’ negotiation committee sat down at a bargaining table to talk in nearly six weeks.

Unfortunately, there is still the sound of silence in St. Louis with no plans of the music to return anytime in the immediate future.  According to reports in the New York Times and the Associated Press, the talks broke down with each side blaming the other for their failure.  Still unanswered at this point, however, is what transpired during the two days of negotiations; what did each side offer and what compromises were offered.

Shedding some light on the issues salary offers
According to Jan Gippo, chair of the musicians’ negotiating committee, the talks started off on a positive note with the musicians providing the management with a revised proposal along with accompanying spreadsheets and a database containing information supporting the feasibility of the musician’s offer.  Jan said,

“Randy [Adams, SLSO president] commented that what we brought to the table was a remarkable amount of supportive data.  We wanted to show management how our latest proposal wouldn’t harm the institution financially while still meeting the musician’s compensation requirements.”

After that initial round the management team left to examine the musician’s proposal for four hours, which the musician’s team interpreted as a good sign.  On the following day, Thursday February 17th, the two sides convened and according to the musicians, management offered them a counter proposal.

“Their proposal was $4,000 less than our requirement of an $80,000 base salary by the contract’s final year,” said Jan.  “Management’s proposal did contain a $2,000 signing bonus to help reimburse us for funds lost during this lockout and a $4,000 ‘stay’ bonus in the final year of the contract.”

According to Jan, this ‘stay’ bonus is an idea created by management to help retain musicians.  Since the music stopped back in January, there’s been a great deal of concern among the musicians and many patrons that the orchestra will begin to lose their core players in large numbers.

In response to this concern, the musicians say that management was approached by a donor after the previous contract expired in January who offered these funds to help encourage the SLSO musicians to “stay” in town after the negotiations are concluded.  But according to Jan, the bonus didn’t apply to all of the musicians.

“The $4,000 ‘stay’ bonus only applies to those who are currently a part of the previous master agreement.  If a musician retires before the end of a new contract, even in the final year, they don’t get the bonus.  We were also concerned that the offer excluded incoming musicians, including those who may have won a position in the auditions which Randy has cancelled since January.”

The musicians were beginning to become concerned as to why management had funds to offer for bonuses in the final year as well as additional funds for overscale contracts (those contracts which certain musicians negotiate separately, outside of the master agreement, such as the concertmaster and some other principal seats).  It appeared as though management was attempting to buy the musicians with their own money, so to speak.

“We didn’t understand why there wasn’t enough money to meet our original request of a base salary of $80,000 by the final year of the contract if there was all of this additional funding now available.  Unfortunately, we don’t know if there were any stipulations being dictated by the donor and we haven’t been offered an opportunity to speak with them ourselves.”

Management’s proposed changes to health insurance
According to the musicians, management’s offer also included a significant change to the health insurance as compared to the previous contract.

Management now wanted to require each musician to be responsible for a mandatory $2,000 annual deduction (beginning August 31st, 2005) for medical expenses regardless of whether individuals spend that much on healthcare or not.  They also wanted the musicians to participate in any increases for health care insurance; management would pay for the first 5% of any increases and the musicians would pay for the next 7%, with a cap of 12% (for example, if health care costs increased 9%, management would be responsible for 5% and the musicians 4%).

At that point the two sides broke for internal discussion and afterward, a group of four representatives (the two lead negotiators from each side) sat down along with the negotiator with the intention of hammering out a final solution.

Give and take
After discussing management’s offer, the musician’s two negotiators, Jan Gippo and Leonard Leibowitz, came back to the table with an “A or B” counter offer.

“We said we would accept a compromise base salary of $78,000 plus a $2,000 ‘stay’ bonus in the final year of the contract along with accepting Randy’s health care benefit proposal,” said Jan.  “Otherwise we would accept management’s original offer of $76,000 plus a ‘stay’ bonus of $4,000 in the final year, but the health care benefits would need to remain identical to what we had in the previous contract.”

According to Jan, Randy Adams said that he couldn’t give the musicians the $78,000 base salary in the final year and he’d rather take the health care offer of retaining the old plan the musicians proposed.  At this point both sides withdrew to discuss this tentative agreement and a short while later the four negotiators sat back down with the mediator.

“We were shocked at what happened next,” said Jan.  “We were fully expecting to work out signing a deal when Randy said that he was pulling his latest offer they all tentatively agreed to verbally.  Instead, he went back to offering his original proposal.”

According to Jan, the musician’s negotiator, Leonard Leibowitz attempted to salvage the meeting by offering up a base salary of $77,000 plus a $3,000 ‘stay’ bonus in the final year in addition to accepting Randy’s new health care insurance proposal.

“Len’s last offer only put us $1,000 away from management’s counterproposal but they still turned it down,” said Jan.  “We were really disappointed to see media reports following that last meeting where management claimed we had a tentative agreement on some issues and the musicians backed out of them because that’s just a lie.
We never signed anything at any of the bargaining sessions, and we did everything we could to bargain in good faith.  It was management who said they preferred one of our counterproposals only to turn around and change direction.
We even asked the federal mediator, Charles Fuchs, if he thought the musicians had been unclear or misleading in any of our sessions and he said that no, we hadn’t.”

At that point the negotiations broke down and both sides left, the standing offer was management’s counterproposal of a $76,000 plus $4,000 ‘stay’ bonus in the final year of the contract and the newly proposed health care benefits.

The musicians convene Friday, February 18th
The musicians gathered that morning to discuss the events which transpired the previous two days.  According to Jan, the musicians did discuss the events from the negotiations and after that point one of the players put forward a motion to vote on giving the negotiation committee a mandate to continue bargaining until they can come back with an offer they would recommend the musicians to accept.

“It’s just not true when management claims the negotiation committee didn’t even let the musicians vote on their proposal,” said Jan.  “Voting on the proposal became a non issue because after a musician put forward a motion for the committee to continue bargaining until we had an agreement we could recommend and it was seconded, we had to take a vote; which passed by an overwhelming majority of 65-2.”

Mr. Gippo went on to say that two hours after that meeting concluded, he contacted Randy Adams to tell him the outcome of the vote. Jan said,

“After telling Randy about the vote he said ‘There is no reason we would cancel next week, we were so close.  Let’s meet Saturday [February 19th, 2005] with the Mediator.’ *

I agreed and waited until 9:00 p.m. until I called him, just to be told that they would not meet with us.  They withdrew once again, without explanation and the offer we have remains as their final offer.”

That’s where things stand right now, there is no scheduled time to convene the mediated negotiations and when asked what is needed to get things going again, Mr. Gippo said,

“Randy needs to call [the negotiation committee] back to set up a time; we’re waiting and ready to continue the negotiations.”

It isn’t about the money
According to Jan, these negotiations aren’t about money; they are about maintaining the artistic integrity of the SLSO.  He claims that the musicians are very concerned that Randy Adams is not demonstrating enough concern for those issues.

“This isn’t about money or the musicians would be asking for parity with our peer orchestras in Washington D.C., Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Minnesota,” said Jan.  “If that were the case, we wouldn’t be asking for an $80,000 base scale by the final year of the contract, we would be asking for $90,000.  We believe this is all about maintaining artistic quality.
During our first meeting on Wednesday, Randy has said he is willing to risk the artistic quality of the institution; but that philosophy isn’t compatible with the mandate the musicians gave the negotiation committee.”

Jan went on to articulate that mandate in more detail,

“A base salary of $80,000 by the final year of the contract and the presence of David Robertson as our Music Director is what the musicians feel is the minimum required to keep us competitive for attracting and retaining world class musicians.
The musicians have indicated that they are willing to continue negotiations under these lockout conditions until those conditions are met.  Now, with the way [Randy’s] treated us and the lengths he has gone to attach so many strings in the process, we’re still willing to sit back down at the bargaining table and reach a settlement, but we won’t take an offer back to the players to vote on unless it’s one the negotiation committee will recommend they accept.  As such, Randy needs to stop adding all of these strings and negotiate in good faith.”

It appears that with each passing week in the standoff, the question of artistic integrity appears to gain momentum.  According to Jan, there are 30 members of the SLSO out subbing, auditioning, or applying for positions with other major orchestras.  Jan himself just spent a week in Chicago playing with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

“Our players are being cherry picked by other orchestras.  They’ve been hiring them to come out and play as substitutes to see how well they fit in,” said Jan.  “I made twice what I would have earned in St. Louis by playing in Chicago for one week; the lure of earning higher pay and a playing in a stable working environment that fosters artistic excellence may be more than enough to entice our musicians to leave.”

Playing chicken?
Management’s current offer has an expiration date of February 28th, 2005.  After that date, the negotiation committee says Randy Adams told them some of the major donors who made pledges to the recent $16 million fundraising drive will pull those pledges.

However, the negotiation committee points out that Randy has been saying that there isn’t any more money in the community to meet the musician’s salary requirements for weeks now but there was still a donor who stepped forward with enough funds to cover overscale and ‘stay’ bonuses.

The musicians also claim that Randy Adams has been making it extremely difficult for all of the potential individual donors to make donations which would be used exclusively toward musician salaries.

As a result, it seems the musician’s claim that there is more money in the community and greater levels of enthusiasm to offer support among individual donors isn’t far off base.

According to the musicians, management’s offer calls for a base salary of $76,000 plus a $4,000 ‘stay’ bonus.  The musicians are asking for a base salary of $80,000 by the final year of the contract.

If there are enough funds to cover a $4,000 ‘stay’ bonus then management can’t be far from having enough to simply add that figure to the base salary for all the players: $76,000 + $4,000 = $80,000.

Peace, stability, good will, and the return of world class orchestral music led by a masterful new music director to Powell Hall have never been more affordable.

*Correction: An earlier version of the is article described the suggestion to meet on Saturday. 2/19/05 as Mr. Gippo’s idea.  In fact, the proposal originated from Mr. Adams.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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