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Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra goes on strike to rectify financial issues

On Friday night, musicians from the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra gave a free concert in Carnegie Mellon University’s College of Fine Art. This is one of the series of free concerts the musicians have presented to the public since their strike to replace the cancelled concerts at Heinz Hall. Musicians from the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra went on strike due to a recent labor dispute: they rejected management’s last, best, and final offer on Thursday night, Sept. 29, which was a proposal that they said would cut their salary by 15 percent, freeze their pensions, and reduce the size of the orchestra

According to the press release from Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s administration, the orchestra is going through an imminent financial struggle. While requesting pay cut from the musicians, they are also significantly reducing administrative expenses. According to them, their last, best, and final offer “would have ensured that the members of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra remained well compensated,” while also maintaining other benefits. Also, according to the administration, they are not asking to get rid of musicians’ pensions, but rather to “allow all musicians who still have accounts in the old defined-benefit plan (DB) to retain what they’ve already earned and transition to the new defined-contribution (DC) plan.” In addition, they said they do not want to reduce the number of musicians, but to defer the hiring of three open positions. According to them, what they are trying to do is to “address fundamental financial issues that cannot be ignored any longer” by looking at every revenue source and every expense. The administrations say that they are unchanging to their commitment to artistic integrity and to world-class excellence, both musically and organizationally. Also, according to their press release, the administration says that they remain committed to reaching an agreement with the musicians, and that they are willing to negotiate with them.

According to the press release from the orchestra committee, “This dispute is really about saving Pittsburgh’s world-class orchestra, and we are very sorry that our management canceled a month’s concerts rather than return to negotiations.” In the interview The Tartan conducted with Micah Howard, the orchestra committee chair, and Jeremy Branson, the vice-chair of the committee, both of whom are also professors at Carnegie Mellon University, they say that these drastic cuts would destroy the orchestra as it is now; they would not be able to recruit and retain the very best musicians. According to them, they are also willing to negotiate, but since the management says they are only willing to negotiate if the musicians accept the drastic cuts, the musicians will not go back to the table “until they are ready to negotiate for a fair contract that addresses the artistic needs balanced out with the financial issues.” In their perspective, the management should come back to the table and tell the musicians what it takes to maintain artistic excellence of the orchestra, rather than focusing only on financial issues.

In fact, financial crisis and strike are not unique to the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra; orchestras around the country are dealing with similar issues. In 2013, the San Francisco Symphony went on strike after rejecting a contract proposal from the administration. And similar stories can be found throughout the country. In Minneapolis, strikes also led to large cancellations. The economic crisis in 2008 produced huge financial quandaries for orchestras in the country, which lead to the closure of the Honolulu, Syracuse, and Albuquerque symphonies. In April 2011, the Philadelphia Orchestra, which is one of the top orchestras in the country, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Some of these orchestras reorganized, and Philadelphia emerged from bankruptcy in July 2012 with a freeze in hiring, cut in the size of the orchestra, and a cut in pay for the remaining performers. According to the press release from Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra’s administration, “while a few organizations have begun to face these issues successfully, others have postponed fundamental change with short-term steps — admittedly, as the Pittsburgh Symphony did for many years.”

Carnegie Mellon University is closely related to the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. According to Professor Howard, 22 Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra musicians teach at Carnegie Mellon University; thus the strike could negatively influence the school. According to him, if great musicians leave for other symphonies, then in addition to the suffering of the orchestra, the city, and the patrons, Carnegie Mellon University will lose many great teachers, which could harm Carnegie Mellon University’s music reputation and cause students to go elsewhere. However, on the bright side, one of the benefits of the strike, according to Professor Branson, is that music students in the university get to witness their professors fight for the organization, which is a knowledge beneficial for their future, although gained in a terrible way.

According to Branson, although the strike is not something we want to see, it is not a sign that classical music is dying, as some people say. As he said in the interview, in the past, an orchestra job was a part time job; the fact that there are right now many orchestras that didn’t exist fifty years ago and that there are numerous orchestra jobs now shows that there is a huge audience who supports classical music. According to Branson and Howard, in spite of the occasional labor disputes, Pittsburgh can and has sustained a great orchestra for the past 120 years, and will continue be able to do so in the future.