When the Music's Over
NMSO players and management turn to mediator for help with contract negotiations
By Katy June-Friesen
Musicians in the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra ended their season this month wearing green armbands and passing out flyers to audience members outside UNM's Popejoy Hall. It wasn't the first time. Nearly six months earlier, the players began their campaign to draw public attention to an impasse in contract negotiations. They wore green armbands on stage to signify solidarity.
Now more than a year has passed since the musicians' contracts expired and they began new negotiations with NMSO management—and they still don't have a contract. After talks on June 8, both parties have agreed to bring in an outside mediator in hopes of moving toward a settlement.
Central to the negotiations is the issue of players' salaries. Musicians contend they have not shared in the symphony's financial success in more than a decade. Although the NMSO budget has grown from $2.4 million in 1991 to $4.3 million in 2004, a player's base annual salary has remained at $15,758. That is $179 less than their salaries in 1992, without adjustments for inflation.
The NMSO collective bargaining agreement expired in September 2004, and musicians have continued to play under the terms of their old contract. Now the players are pushing for budget reallocations that will provide them with a "fair and professional" wage. "We offered management a proposal that is very doable," said Carla Lehmeier, cellist and president of the NMSO Players Association.
Lehmeier, who has been with the symphony for 17 years, said there is a history of NMSO musicians taking pay cuts and freezes to help the symphony stay afloat. She said during the years of sacrifice, particularly the early '90s, management promised musicians that pay raises were part of the long-range plan for NMSO. Now musicians feel they have been subsidizing the symphony for long enough.
Kevin Hagen, executive director of NMSO, said management (which includes the NMSO board of directors) agrees that musicians deserve higher wages. "We absolutely agree that our musicians are outstanding professionals," he said.
But the percent of the budget that has gone for musician salaries in the last few years has consistently been above the orchestra industry standard, said Hagan. The management asserts that in 2000, 40.4 percent of the budget went to musician salaries, compared to the industry average of 38.7 percent. This year, 36.5 percent of the NMSO budget went to musician salaries, compared to the industry average of 32.4 percent. Because smaller orchestras like NMSO vary in numbers of players and payment methods, said Hagen, this percentage measurement is the only accurate way to establish how the organization is compensating musicians.
However, conflicting figures are feeding the tension between management and the players, because neither party agrees with numbers being used to support the other's position. The musicians are comparing NMSO to the Richmond Symphony, because the two symphonies are similar in size and budget. Richmond has a 38-week season compared to NMSO's 35 weeks. Richmond also has 20 days paid vacation, which NMSO players do not have. Richmond's players' salaries are nearly double those of NMSO musicians.
NMSO musicians, who are union members of Local 618 of the American Federation of Musicians, are paid on a per-service basis. This means that for the performance season, they are paid each time the orchestra practices or performs. They are not paid for their own practice time.
The Richmond Symphony players are paid on a weekly basis, and NMSO management contends that Richmond's musicians simply work more. But the NMSO players disagree and argue that Richmond players don't necessarily perform the maximum number of services per week. In the past, NMSO management has discussed increasing salaries by increasing the number of services for musicians. But NMSO players don't think they should have to work more to get higher wages.
Hagen said that while NMSO has been successful in increasing its budget, its endowment, which began in 1997, is much younger than those of other orchestras. He added that this is the first year the endowment, composed of foundation grants and individual donations, is big enough to provide any funds at all. The endowment has now exceeded $5 million. "NMSO compares favorably to other orchestras of its size in every aspect except the endowment," Hagen said.
The management has tried to solve the salary problem by other means. The NMSO board developed the Maestro's Challenge Fund, which seeks donors who will provide large amounts repeatedly over three years. The fund, which is specifically for musician salaries, has garnered community support in the amount of nearly $500,000. However, NMSO players feel the successes of fundraising have still not trickled down to them.
Musicians believe the budget itself is healthy enough to boost their salaries. In 1991, the NMSO budget was 2.4 million and musicians' salaries were $15,311. By 1999, the budget was $2.9 million and salaries were $14,423. In 2004, the budget was $4.3 million and players' salaries were $15,758, which is the amount players have been paid since the contract expired last year. On the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra Players' Association web site, a copy of a core player's W-2 form shows that after taxes, social security and Medicare are deducted, the player takes home $11,316 for what musicians contend amounts to nearly a full-time job averaging 30 hours a week. Non-core players, who do not play at every symphony performance, earn substantially less. According to the web site, one quarter of the orchestra has a base salary of $5,393.
According to the Players' Association, over the last decade, expenses for administrative and production personnel have increased at a much greater rate than musician salaries. The Association is calling for reallocation of funds for substantial salary increases. Above all, they want an end to what they feel is a pattern of not prioritizing musicians.
But Hagen explains that the orchestra is just beginning to enjoy financial stability after years of steady financial growth. He said management is concerned the orchestra has recently been in a financial slump, and they don't want to fall back into the financial trouble of the '90s. The purpose of the endowment is to help establish financial stability for NMSO.
Many players have to find other work to supplement their symphony salary. Lehmeier said she tried to hold down a job in the public schools, but the symphony rehearsal hours during the day made it impossible.
Hagan said the board is sympathetic toward such challenges. "The board understands (the players') lives are difficult. That's the subject of negotiations," said Hagan.
Musicians aren't only concerned about wages and recognition--they're worried that salaries could impact the symphony artistically. Low salaries could affect musicians' choices about whether to stay with NMSO and could also affect how well the symphony attracts new players.
The NMSO has been boosting its artistic reputation under the direction of conductor Guillermo Figueroa. The symphony gained national recognition for its CD recording featuring a performance of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony and works by Berlioz and Ravel. Lehmeier says NMSO has recently been compared to the highly-regarded Milwaulkee and San Francisco symphonies.
Amidst the offers and counteroffers, there is one thing on which management and musicians agree: the high level of support NMSO gets from the community. "The community supports the orchestra in a very strong way across the board," Hagen said.
Musicians found this to be true in their campaign to educate audience members about salaries. They were encouraged by public support, including letters that patrons wrote to management and letters sent to the players. Lehmeier said she believes the community realizes "you're the product, you're what makes this organization."
This summer, management and the players hope bringing in an outside mediator will help neutralize the dispute and move negotiations forward. At this point, it seems likely the musicians will be tuning up for another season come fall.
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