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There are few people who would dispute that Buffalo Philharmonic musicians are underpaid. However, the strike threatened by musicians in the face of what appears to be a reasonable contract offer will only make matters worse, and could end the viability of the orchestra as a major civic institution.

It's time for musicians and managers to pick up the tempo on stalled contract negotiations. The dispute is threatening to replace Saturday's local debut of new Music Director JoAnn Falletta with the sounds of silence.

The appointment of a federal mediator, who will meet with both sides Wednesday, is a hopeful sign that this dispute can be settled before doing lasting harm to the orchestra.

The strike threatened by orchestra members earlier this month comes perilously close to sounding a death knell for the city's treasured but troubled Philharmonic. Even if a strike is averted, management's claim that the season and the orchestra could be lost to labor strife sends a chilling message to potential private and corporate donors.

The musicians, in short, are playing with fire -- and they know it. "It's a very dangerous situation," acknowledged Buffalo Musicians Association Local 92 President Mark Jones.

All-too-frequent warnings that the end is near -- regardless of their merit -- imperil management's credibility. Even worse, they could erode enthusiasm by patrons and stifle contributions from benefactors who may simply throw up their hands and ask, "Is this situation hopeless?"

What's needed here is hard negotiating work, done quickly.

Issues in this dispute include increasing the orchestra size, improving the pension that replaced a "distress-terminated" plan during the last crisis years and vacation time. But the real nut is money. The musicians have a legitimate gripe, but the orchestra probably is unable to solve it as quickly as the players would like.

Both sides want Buffalo's musicians to reach the national standard of about $40,000. The musicians want it to happen in three years. The orchestra, given fiscal realities, has made a seemingly prudent offer to reach that goal in five years. Over three years, some calculations show, the current contract proposal and counterproposal are about $573,000 apart -- just over 2 percent of a three-year $27 million budget.

Musicians got a raise in the last three-year contract. Union officials say that was the first real increase since the 1980s. The base salary is now $28,700 -- about midway between Syracuse and Rochester salaries, and far less than such comparable cities as Milwaukee ($50,028), Indianapolis ($56,160) or Columbus ($43,780).

Despite a $1.3 million increase in the Philharmonic's 1999-2000 budget -- a sticky point with musicians because much of it is targeted for moving the orchestra's offices or fund-raising activities -- orchestra officials counter that the cupboard remains bare. If there's no gala season opener -- or no season -- the orchestra itself could vanish. With the Philharmonic already reeling from the loss of Pops conductor Doc Severinsen, the danger is real.

The orchestra's musicians must realize that audiences, already hard to attract with regularity in an economy that demands parsimony in parceling out entertainment dollars, could disappear. Given cultural changes and musical tastes, they may be impossible to reattract in sufficient numbers to support a quality orchestra.

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