Walkouts and Lockouts in U.S. Symphonies: What Do They Portend?


October 3, 2012; Source: Associated Press

For the past few years, NPQ has been covering the labor disputes at symphonies and other classical performance organizations with some interest. But the current rash of walkouts, lockouts and cancellations of seasons or parts of seasons is truly overwhelming. Orchestras and symphonies across the country are pressuring musicians hard for concessions on their compensation. The use of the word “concessions” may be a bit misrepresentative, by the way, when you look at the size of some of the cuts. In Minnesota, the orchestra has proposed an average salary reduction of approximately one-third, or $46,000, and while that dispute is worked through, concerts have been cancelled there through November 25th.

You may remember that NPQ followed a strike by the musicians of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in 2010. This action was characterized by a very public social media storm that affected the reputation of the symphony and during which many musicians quit and moved on. Reports this AP article, “A similar standoff is under way across the Mississippi River at the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra has canceled the first month of its season due to a labor impasse, and similar troubles are rumbling at orchestras in Richmond, Va., Jacksonville, Fla., and San Antonio, Texas.” In Jacksonville, Symphony Orchestra performers are facing a proposal for a cut of almost 20 percent in total compensation and in Baltimore, Symphony Orchestra musicians have “conceded” 27 percent of base pay. Resolutions to similar disputes have only recently been reached in Atlanta and Chicago.

Orchestras characterize the basic problem as being an unworkable financial formula. Ticket sales are down, as are donations and investments in many instances, but pre-arranged musician contract increases continue apace. The Minnesota Orchestra’s principal trombonist Doug Wright comments that cutting the salaries of the artists will result in a talent drain, since the best of the artists are very much in a global market.

Of course, in Minnesota, the Orchestra might have had more of a steady leg to stand on with the musicians if it were not in the middle of a $50 million renovation of its front lobby. Management claims the money for this is strictly dedicated by donors and that the renovation is necessary to the venue’s future but this awkward juxtaposition has sparked a call by the musicians for an audited view of the orchestra’s finances. –Ruth McCambridge

  • Carlo Cuesta

    Great post. I think the bigger question is about the relevancy of these institutions, and I don’t mean the art form. While they are asking their musicians to take major pay cuts (in MN’s case over 30%), institutional leaders need to be looking at how they approach communicating the value of this art form to the public.

  • Patrick Bell

    A similar dispute between the musician’s union and the Sacramento Symphony led to the closure of the nonprofit symphony about 20 years ago in our town. And even though a successor (the Sacramento Philharmonic) arose to take its place, the level of musicianship is just a half step below the previous organization, and the depth and breadth of the season’s offerings is far below the Symphony’s. The old Symphony went bankrupt at the end, leaving many people embittered (season subscribers paid for performances that never occurred and received no refunds). The “anchor” effect of a decent Symphony affected the Opera and other symbiotic productions. The overall trust of the audience went down as well. The scars are still noticeable, and even though the “replacement” Philharmonic makes beautiful music, it’s just never been the same. I only wish other orchestral nonprofits, unions and communities could take a good hard look at the long-term, lingering impacts of these disputes. Ours was a lose-lose experience!