By 10 a.m. Wednesday, Baltimore will find out the answer to a question that has consumed Maryland’s music lovers all summer:
Will the 77 oboists, flute players, violinists and other performers in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra show up for work at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall? Or will they be found instead on the picket lines outside their performing home at 1212 Cathedral St. in Mid-Town Belvedere?
No one seems to know.
“This is a very, very complicated situation all the way around,” said Bill Barry, the retired director of labor studies for the Community College of Baltimore College — Dundalk. "Both sides seem to have been totally taken by surprise at the way this situation developed. I can’t predict where it is going to end.”
The stakes are enormous, not just for the symphony but for the surrounding neighborhood, city and state.
The BSO is by far Maryland’s largest cultural institution. Its $28 million annual budget is nearly twice as large as that of the arts group in second place, the Baltimore Museum of Art. According to the advocacy group Americans for the Arts, the BSO has an economic impact statewide of about $30 million a year.
“They can’t let this drag on for too long,” said Michael Hayes, an associate professor at the University of Baltimore, where he teaches labor law.“You can’t cancel concerts for year after year and expect that the audiences will come roaring back."
He noted that in 2008, the city lost its 58-year-old opera company.
"Maybe they could do this for a year. Beyond that, you’re running a very serious risk of never having another symphony in Baltimore,” he said.
As the situation develops over the next several days, here’s what could happen:
How soon will they resolve the contract dispute?
The key issue dividing both sides has remained unchanged for the past 10 months. Citing losses of $16 million over the past decade, management has proposed reducing the season from 52 weeks to 40, accompanied by a roughly 20 percent pay cut for the players.
Negotiations over the summer have resulted in little progress, according to both sides. Informal talks have been going on all week. The next negotiating session is scheduled for Friday.
“Friday is going to be a very important session,” Hayes said, noting that agreements in labor disputes frequently are reached at the last minute, when the pressure for a compromise intensifies.
He said certain signs could indicate that an agreement is close: The pace of negotiations will pick up. Bargaining sessions will last longer, and there will be more of them. There will be a decrease in rhetoric that depicts the opposite side in a negative light.
“Both sides might even announce progress on some core issues,” he said.
Will the musicians return to work without a contract?
“Absolutely not,” said Brian Prechtl, co-chairman of the Players Committee. “However, we are hopeful that we can reach agreement with management.”
Technically, the lockout ends Monday, but the musicians’ first work obligation isn’t until 10 a.m. Wednesday. If the players show up for rehearsal, the work stoppage would be over. If, instead, they are picketing outside the Meyerhoff, expect the dispute to continue for some time.
(Whether the work stoppage could then be categorized as a strike or merely as a continuation of the lockout is one of those complicated legal questions that attorneys wrangle over and courts ultimately decide.)
Hayes pointed out that until now, the lockout has disproportionately affected the musicians. That changes next week, he said.
“So far, this has been virtually pain-free for management from a financial standpoint,” he said. “But if they have to start canceling concerts, they will start losing revenue, and there’s going to be pain on both sides.”
The BSO has already pushed back its gala fundraising concert, originally scheduled for Sept. 14, until May 9 because of uncertainty regarding labor negotiations.
If the musicians were to eventually return to work without a contract, has management won?
Not necessarily, according to Barry.
In theory, in the absence of a contract there would be nothing to prevent the symphony’s board from locking out the players again after the regular season ends in June 2020 and imposing a 40-week season. But Barry said both sides could use the next nine months to hammer out an agreement. Moreover, a cooling-off period would give the task force created this spring by the Maryland General Assembly time to analyze the BSO’s finances and make recommendations for restoring the organization to solvency.
“If the musicians go back to work, they will get a paycheck and health insurance,” Barry said. "It will be a chance for both sides to regroup and realize this is a disastrous way to run an operation. They can rethink their strategy and figure out where all the money has been going.”
Will the mayor or governor intervene?
It’s not unusual for top political figures to step in when a leading cultural organization is threatened. After the Detroit Symphony went on strike in 2010, former Gov. Jennifer Granholm and U.S. Sen. Carl Levin attempted to broker an agreement. This spring, former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel played a key role in resolving a seven-week-long strike by Chicago Symphony Orchestra musicians.
So far, neither Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young nor Gov. Larry Hogan has become involved in the BSO dispute.
The governor’s position is complicated; the BSO canceled its the summer season of concerts after learning that Hogan planned to withhold $1.6 million in funds authorized by the state legislature for the current fiscal year. In response, BSO musicians performed an impromptu protest concert earlier this summer at the state capital.
Young could not be reached immediately for comment Thursday; Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan said only that there is “no involvement on our end.”
What can symphony management do to put pressure on the musicians?
Peter Kjome, the symphony’s president and CEO, has ruled out one potentially inflammatory tactic: The BSO, he said, will not attempt to hire replacement musicians.
“If our musicians do not come back to work, any affected concerts would have to be cancelled,” he wrote in an email to The Baltimore Sun.
The greatest danger the musicians face is that if bargaining goes on too long, management could declare that the sides have reached a legal impasse, Hayes said, which would then allow the board to impose its “last, best and final offer.”
That might sound as though Kjome and the board are holding the winning hand. But Barry said that an organization as strapped for cash as the BSO has just as much to lose from this legal maneuver as the musicians would.
“Declaring an impasse involves extremely complicated legal issues," he said.
“Resolving them can be incredibly time-consuming. If it goes all the way to the courts, it can take eight or nine years. Both sides should try to avoid reaching an impasse if at all possible.”
As a music lover, Hayes hopes it won’t reach that point.
“Both sides seem to want to be putting on concerts,” he said. “I gotta believe there’s some room for compromise.”