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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Tough times push symphony into labor dispute

Things are tough all over – even, it turns out, in the acoustic and architectural wonderland of the Fox Theater.

A labor dispute has erupted between the Spokane Symphony’s musicians and administrators, and the tune is depressingly familiar: The economy is doing a number on an organization, and the resulting scramble to keep the ship afloat has resulted in cuts in staff, pay and morale.

After months of negotiations, the symphony has imposed a contract on the musicians that amounts to a 13 percent pay cut. That comes after musicians agreed to a 10 percent pay cut in 2009 and gave up contracted raises last year to help the struggling symphony, musicians say.

“It’s really disrespectful of the musicians,” said Alaina Bercilla, 30, the 2nd flute/piccolo in the orchestra. “It’s difficult not to take it personally and not be offended by what they’re offering us.”

The musicians union also objects to the absence of a guaranteed minimum salary in the contract’s second year and a tightening of the rules governing unpaid leave. They argue that in a time when the symphony is breaking even, the cuts are “unreasonably severe,” and have started a public campaign to urge the symphony to resume negotiations.

Symphony officials say they have little choice, short of running a deficit, but to target the musicians’ compensation. Since 2009, officials said, the annual budget has been cut by 13 percent, and eight administrative staffers have been cut. The new pay scale will save the symphony between $120,000 and $180,000 in a budget of about $3.4 million.

Ticket sales are down sharply from four years ago, and donations have dropped as well. The current pay scale for musicians – a per-service arrangement with a guaranteed minimum – is based on “services” that were planned during the pre-recession boom years for the organization, said symphony officials.

Since then, shows and programs have been curtailed, and planned expansions canceled. In the last couple of years, the budget has been balanced, but just barely – saved by loans, last-minute donations, and various voluntary give-backs of vacation and salary by staffers, officials said.

“The board, trying to be fiscally responsible and protect the jobs, doesn’t believe in running deficits,” said Peter Moye, president of the symphony’s board of directors.

The core group of players is now paid $17,460 a year; the new contract would lower that to $15,132. The musicians are paid an hourly rate of more than $43 for a unique schedule: Thirty-eight weeks of the year, they are contracted to work eight 2.5-hour shows or performances.

Adam Wallstein, a timpanist and orchestra negotiator, said the hourly figure is highly misleading, given the preparation and practice that is required. Most of the musicians in the orchestra rely on teaching and other side jobs to patch together incomes in the range of $20,000 to $25,000.

Bercilla said she’s aware that these are not boom times for orchestras. She auditioned and came here in 2008 at an advertised salary that never materialized. Last year, the musicians union agreed to give up its contractual pay raise to help balance the budget.

“We said of course we would do that to help the organization,” she said. “We wanted to do our part.”

The union and the symphony have been negotiating since spring; they reached an impasse, turned to a mediator, and the symphony made its final offer, which was rejected by the union. That means that contract went into effect; the union is trying to put public pressure on the symphony to return to the table.

A sticking point for the union has been a budgeted increase in administrative costs; some have presented that as evidence of pay raises. Moye said that’s incorrect. The increase reflects the combination of the Fox and the symphony into a single operation.

“It’s not an increase in salaries,” he said. “It’s an increase in bodies we’ve taken on since we merged the two entities.”

Some have targeted Brenda Nienhouse’s salary of about $114,000 as the head of the Fox and symphony. Though she did not want to go into specifics, she said she and others in the administration had made sacrifices.

“Have we taken comparable cuts? Yes,” she said. “And, on top of that, given back.”

Both sides say they want to preserve Spokane’s professional symphony orchestra, in a time when other symphonies and the arts generally are suffering. And both sides are tiptoeing around the worst-case scenario – a musicians strike – while insisting that the show will go on.

“All options are on the table to get them back to the table,” Wallstein said. “But we want to keep the music going.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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