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Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra musicians authorize strike

Musicians of the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra last month overwhelmingly approved a strike authorization for the first time in the symphony’s 87-year history. That raises the possibility that a strike could be approved between Dec. 31, when the contract expires, and the start of the 2017 season in June.

At issue is the symphony’s demand for greater compensation. The 74 musicians want raises that would add up to $18,278 per season for the orchestra over the life of a four-year contract. The annual musicians’ budget is $1.5 million.

“The symphony is one of the defining keystones of Chautauqua,” said Rick Evans, a fourth-generation Chautauquan and volunteer attorney for the musicians. “The institution’s own ticket-scanning statistics show the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra is the most popular programming event that occurs in the Amphitheater.”

Management has called the’ demands “fiscally irresponsible,” and countered with a smaller increase.

George Murphy, the Chautauqua Institution’s vice president and chief marketing officer, said the institution wants negotiations to be private.

“We are reluctant to put any specifics out there because it’s supposed to be a negotiation in good faith,” Murphy said. “I don’t want to get into a public tit-for-tat.”

Management announced Aug. 8 its last offer was final.

“Our offer will not increase over time and is subject to withdrawal,” a letter sent later that day to the musicians’ negotiating team read. “Please be assured we intend to open our new amphitheater in 2017 with a full complement of programming, and planning is currently underway.”

Evans said the musicians interpreted that as a thinly veiled threat, and predicted trying to replace the symphony with other musicians or non-symphonic programming would meet steep resistance from Chautauquans.

“To lose a symphony over this, given its importance to the community and its long history, is ridiculous,” Evans said.

He also said the institution would be unsuccessful if it sought to replace symphony members with professional musicians.

“All other symphonies are union symphonies,” Evans said, noting a recent letter of support from Associated Musicians of Greater New York Local 802.

Murphy denied a threat was intended. But he said programming for the 2017 season would be different without an agreement.

“There will be programming, but it might be a different mix,” he said. “It would have a big impact, which is why we’re trying to get this thing resolved.”

The symphony is used in about 40 percent of Chautauqua’s programming including symphonic concerts, opera and ballet performances, a Friday night entertainment program with national acts, and the Music Student Festival Orchestra.

The musicians, who perform in symphonies around the country, are paid $9,230 for the nine-week season, with a housing allowance of about $6,000.Their compensation is 52 percent less than symphonies in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Detroit and Cincinnati, and significantly less than summer symphonies in Santa Fe and Chicago, according to the musicians’ website.

But Murphy said data from the League of American Orchestras shows the orchestra’s per-service compensation, based on budget size, is above the industry average.

He said it also exceeded that of symphonies in Buffalo and Rochester, noting the musicians’ negotiators disagreed with that assessment.

Last month, management – days after the strike authorization vote – dropped a highly contentious proposal to shrink the size of the string section and relegate some musicians to part-time status.

The call to reduce the symphony’s size was surprising, Evans said, because management claimed a larger orchestra pit was needed to accommodate the symphony’s needs as an argument for building a new amphitheater that’s scheduled to open in 2017.

email: msommer@buffnews.com

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