‘To have music back on this stage is a real thrill’: BSO, union ratify new contract, end bitter labor dispute

The BSO and its musicians reach an agreement on a new one-year contract.

Trumpet fanfare Monday afternoon broke a 14-week silence at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. The performance by two Baltimore Symphony Orchestra musicians began a news conference to announce an end to the bitter labor dispute that had locked musicians out of the performance space.

“To have music back on this stage is a real thrill,” said Barbara Bozzuto, chair of the BSO’s board of directors.


The BSO’s management and its musicians hosted the new conference jointly, signaling a desire for unity and that the organization speaks with one voice — for now.

With the open strife behind them, the BSO’s 104th season will begin Friday.


Performers voted Sunday to ratify a new one-year contract; the organization’s board of directors approved the agreement Monday morning.

The agreement shortens this year’s season to 38 weeks plus two summer weeks, a sticking point in previous negotiations, while providing bonus compensation for the other 10 weeks of summer. It also creates a “Vision Committee” that will give musicians a greater say in the BSO’s future.

The contract happened through “a lot of intense conversations,” CEO Peter Kjome said at the news conference. He cautioned that the BSO “will need additional support to make this happen,” and that more fundraising would be needed to cover the cost of the one-year contract.

State and local officials and classical musical supporters heralded Monday’s announcement, with music director Marin Alsop saying she was “thrilled."

“The musicians of our orchestra are a great treasure to our community and this agreement assures that we will continue creating the highest level of music-making together,” Alsop said.

Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, speaking Monday at the Meyerhoff, called the orchestra “an essential part of what makes Baltimore and the state of Maryland such a special place to live, to work and to visit" that he hoped will be “here in our great city for many generations to come.”

State Del. Maggie McIntosh, who introduced the legislation to help fund the BSO, expressed hope that with "the musicians and management in agreement with this piece, we can move forward.”

“Given that the BSO is the largest annual recipient of state arts grant funding, we are pleased that the two sides have reached an agreement and will move forward," said Michael Ricci, communications director for Gov. Larry Hogan, who has withheld additional state funding for the orchestra approved by the General Assembly this year.

Others were more circumspect.

Though “it’s obviously a good thing” that musicians are back on the payroll, said John Warshawsky, a member of the Save Our Symphony committee, the one-year agreement left plenty of open questions. Management and musicians, said Warshawsky, a BSO donor and amateur violist*, “still have some very different views about where the orchestra needs to go.”

Though the contract resolves the current crisis, the underlying financial problems afflicting the organization that resulted in $16 million in deficits during the past decade still need to be resolved. While donors helped raise the funds to pay musician salaries this year, in the long term, the orchestra “needs a better way of funding,” Warshawsky said.

“Eventually," he said, "donors understandably are fatigued.”


BSO Players Committee co-chair Brian Prechtl expected that anger from musicians about the lockout would not go away overnight.

“People have been taking every job they could possibly get,” he said. Others delayed medical procedures while forgoing a paycheck. “Those things happen because of protracted strikes.”

Warshawsky noted that several BSO musicians had left in recent months for orchestras that promised higher pay and more stable futures.

“We’ve definitely already lost several really important musicians. I strongly suspect we will lose some others as well,” he said.

“The musicians and the orchestra have really been through a bruising, difficult year,” Warshawsky said. “Everybody is committed to trying to learn from it and not repeat it.”

Highlights of the agreement include:

  • The musicians’ pay should remain roughly the same. Under management’s initial contract proposal presented in the autumn of 2018, the performers would have taken about a 20 percent cut from the base salary of $82,742 they were paid under their previous contract, which expired in January. Under the new bargaining agreement, the performers will receive a base salary of $81,438.
  • The base pay is guaranteed by a restricted fund of about $1.6 million that has been pledged by local philanthropists on the condition that it be used for performers’ salaries.
  • The one-year contract calls for a 38-week performing season and a two-week summer season instead of the 52 weeks stipulated under previous contracts. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that future concert seasons will end in June and resume in September.
  • The contract also provides for creation of a new board committee — the Vision Committee — that will have a broad mandate in planning the BSO’s future. Among other issues, the Vision Committee will have a say in determining season length.
  • Under the new contract, the number of musicians employed by the BSO remains at 83.
  • The union will drop the unfair labor practice complaint it filed against the BSO with the National Labor Relations Board on Sept. 10, the morning after a previous round of contract talks broke down.
  • The contract includes a no-strike and no-lockout agreement through Sept. 6, 2020.

The contract resolves a crisis that erupted over Memorial Day when the BSO abruptly canceled the season of summer concerts it announced just five weeks previously.

Kjome had just learned that Hogan was unlikely to release to the BSO the $1.6 million in emergency funding from the state legislature on which the organization had been relying to meet payroll for the summer and pay other bills.

The musicians were locked out of the Meyerhoff on June 17. Though the lockout was lifted Sept. 9, the players refused to return to work without a contract, delaying the opening of the 2019-20 season by two weeks.

The new contract means that a work group created by the Maryland General Assemblyand charged with recommending solutions to what has been the BSO’s ongoing money problems will find it easier to make progress.

An audit released earlier this summer concluded that the symphony might not have the financial resources to remain in business for another year.

When the work group was created by the legislature last spring, lawmakers didn’t anticipate that the BSO would soon become embroiled in a long work stoppage, said Ed Kasemeyer, the former state senator who is chairman of the work group.

”Everyone’s time and energy have been engaged in trying to resolve the dispute and get the musicians back to work,” he said last week. ”It is hard to work on the future when you are stuck in the present.”

*A prior version of this article misidentified the instrument played by John Warshawsky. He is an amateur violist. The Sun regrets the error.

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