A bitter labor dispute exacerbated by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's financial crisis erupted this week into a lockout. It was the first work stoppage at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in three decades.
Sunday’s decision by the orchestra’s board of trustees locking out the players was not unexpected.
Despite the picketers carrying signs reading “I Make Less Than I Did a Decade Ago,” the letters to the editor from concerned music lovers and the angry words exchanged by both sides, the nonprofit is all but out of money and has proposed shortening the concert season from 52 weeks a year to 40 and reducing players’ pay by about 20 percent.
But negotiations aimed at resolving the impasse are going on behind the scenes. A bargaining session has been scheduled for 11 a.m. Friday. The Players Committee and the BSO said the session will be attended by mediators with the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.
Orchestra officials say they expect to welcome the players back to work and to resume concerts this fall.
“We will be back at the bargaining table on Friday,” said Peter Kjome, the symphony’s president and CEO. “Mediators will be there to help assist us in collective bargaining as we work together to reach an agreement.”
The board met Sunday night to approve the lockout, according to a news release issued by the symphony. At 10:30 p.m., the musicians were notified that their key cards would no longer admit them to the orchestra’s offices or parking garage and that they would not be able to gain access to the organization’s Wi-Fi network.
Less than 10 hours later, about 100 musicians and their supporters began gathering outside the orchestra’s administrative offices and performing home at 1212 Cathedral St.
“Great music isn’t cheap, cheap music isn’t great,” read a sign carried by flutist Marcia Kamper. A large black dog wore a sign reading, “Keep the BSO World-Class” — a reference to the proposal to shorten the season. The musicians have been working without a contract since January.
Passing motorists blared their horns in support.
‘We’ve been getting ready for the last few days,” said Brian Prechtl, co-chair of the Players Committee. “You’re always hopeful because sometimes these things get resolved at the eleventh hour. But we knew we had to be prepared.”
According to documents obtained by The Baltimore Sun, the orchestra’s management knew by mid-April that it was likely to end its fiscal year Aug. 31 about $1.5 million in the hole.
The first installment of a two-year, $3.2 million grant approved by the Maryland General Assembly might have allowed the organization to proceed with its recently announced summer season — but even then, the orchestra barely would have ended the year having spent all its money.
With Gov. Larry Hogan hesitant to release the funds for the BSO, symphony management abruptly announced May 30 that it was canceling the summer season and informed musicians they would receive their last paycheck for the summer on June 14.
The orchestra couldn’t allow the players to come to work if they weren’t planning to pay them, and the lockout went into effect Monday morning.
Hogan later said it would be unlikely that he would release the funds.
“This has been a very difficult day,” Kjome said Monday. “The BSO has no choice but to confront immediately its very serious financial issues to help preserve the organization.”
A lockout occurs when management bars employees from coming to work. It is the opposite of a strike, which happens when workers walk off the job. In its 103-year history, the BSO has experienced at least five prior work stoppages: strikes in 1937, 1968, 1971 and 1988, and a lockout in 1981.
The longest work stoppage was a 22-week strike from September 1988 to February 1989. During that dispute, visiting actor Ed Asner joined players on the picket line and brandished a placard that read: "No to third-class treatment of a world-class orchestra."
On Monday, musicians told passersby that the orchestra is manufacturing the current financial crisis. They want the BSO to pay them for the summer by drawing additional funds from the $60 million BSO Endowment Trust, on top of the $3.75 million annual draw that is part of the operating budget.
“This is a scare tactic to elicit a very punitive contract from the musicians,” Prechtl said. “They’re going to balance the budget on our backs.”
John Warshawsky, a longtime subscriber and donor who heads the advocacy group Save Our BSO, pointed out that the lockout announcement emphasizes the importance of growing the endowment to achieve long-term stability, without mentioning the hardships that the unexpected loss of the summer’s paychecks could cause for 75 people struggling to make housing payments and to pay medical bills.
Estimates are that if the lockout continues until September, players will lose more than $2.5 million in wages and benefits.
“Management reaffirms that it considers the growth of the endowment to be of greater importance than the current musicians’ well-being,” Warshawsky said in an email. “I try to be dispassionate and balanced in my assessments of their motives, but it’s really as simple as that.”
City Councilman Ryan Dorsey, a Democrat, stopped by Monday’s protest and joined in the chorus of criticism. The lockout “is not just an insult to Baltimore, the institutional history, and the arts, but it’s an assault on the organized labor of the [musicians],” he said in a tweet. “It’s atrocious.”
He did not respond to a request for comment from The Sun.
Greg Raelson, acting director of public and congressional affairs for the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, wouldn’t discuss the specifics of the BSO negotiations, but said that in general, “Our mediators are there to assist in negotiations however the parties see fit and most beneficial.”
Prechtl described the mediators’ presence as a “back-channel” tool.
“It’s a way to find middle ground so we can begin talking,” he said. “You avail yourselves of these tools so someone objective can hear both sides and know their positions.”
Meanwhile, he said, musicians will picket every day for at least this week. In addition, if both sides remain at an impasse, the union will consider other measures such as asking the National Labor Relations Board to intervene.
Kjome said he expects the current lockout to last no longer than 12 weeks, which would make it the second-longest work stoppage in the organization’s history.
“The BSO expects to be able to terminate the lockout on Monday, Sept. 9,” he said. “Work will be provided to bargaining unit employees on that date.”
Longtime subscriber Meg Gallucci certainly hopes so.
Gallucci has been attending concerts since she moved to Baltimore in the 1990s. The music, she said, inevitably took her to a different mental place and provided her with a haven from the stress of law school. Since then, the orchestra has become so essential to her that she recently bought a condominium in the city.
“When I decided I was going to move in 2017, I ruled out Mays Chapel in part because of the distance from the Meyerhoff,” she said. “The BSO is a big deal for me and part of why I like Baltimore — an important part.”