Philadelphia Orchestra musicians have authorized a strike if negotiations don’t progress soon
“The musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra have declared that enough is enough,” said Ellen Trainer, president of the Philadelphia Musicians’ Union Local 77.
Angry and frustrated, the members of the Philadelphia Orchestra have voted to authorize a strike if they don’t see more progress in their negotiations for a new contract and better pay.
In a vote that ended Saturday night and was announced Sunday morning, the musicians put their bosses with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Kimmel Center Inc. (POKC) on notice they are prepared to walk out after their current contract expires Sept. 10. The strike authorization, agreed to by 95% of the members who voted, doesn’t guarantee a strike but is a necessary step to calling a walkout if there is still no agreement when their contract expires.
The Philadelphia musicians are seeking wage increases that they say would raise their pay to within the average of the other orchestras of their caliber, along with improved retirement benefits, pay parity for their substitute musicians who now make less than full-time orchestra members, and the filling of 15 vacant positions in the orchestra, among other requests.
Union leaders contend management has been unresponsive to their proposals.
“The musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra have declared that enough is enough,” said Ellen Trainer, president of the Philadelphia Musicians’ Union Local 77. “The POKC can no longer refuse to prioritize the musicians that make Philadelphia’s orchestra the best in the world.”
“The union has proposed a fair and equitable contract that ensures economic dignity and respect for the Philadelphia Orchestra’s musicians and freelance musicians who help maintain the orchestra’s sound,” Trainer added. “But management has shown that musicians are a cost to be contained, rather than the most important asset of the orchestra and the Kimmel Center.”
The Philadelphia Orchestra and Kimmel Center Inc. “are disappointed” in the strike authorization vote, spokesperson Ashley Berke said in an email, vowing to “continue to negotiate in good faith towards a fiscally responsible agreement that ensures the musicians’ economic and artistic future.”
Since May, the musicians’ union and POKC management have met several times, including six negotiating sessions this month with little progress, said Stuart W. Davidson, lawyer for the musicians’ union. Their next scheduled negotiating sessions are Sept. 6-8.
Over the last two decades, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s base salaries have fallen below their peers’ in the nation’s other premier orchestras to “dead last,” he said.
Philadelphia’s current base salary is $144,456, according to union figures. The Los Angeles Philharmonic, the highest paid orchestra in the country, will have a base salary of $195,520 in the 2023-24 performance season.
To get the Philly musicians to a salary that’s the average of their peers — $172,753 — would require a nearly 19.6% pay increase; what their managers have proposed would keep them at the bottom of the pack, according to Davidson.
The orchestra’s managers disagree that the Philadelphia musicians are the worst among their peers, and they say the union’s figures don’t reflect their full compensation.
Spokeswoman Berke said the “minimum annual compensation” for a Philadelphia Orchestra musician is $152,276, which is base pay along with a guaranteed electronic media participation payment. She said under management’s latest proposal, that figure would grow to $172,886 by the start of the 2025-26 season.
Davidson said Philadelphia as well as other orchestras get electronic media payments, but the union used base salary levels “to compare apples with apples.”
In addition, not all orchestra members are paid the same; principal musicians are paid more. According to Berke, the average annual compensation, including all pay levels and the media payments, is $190,736, including a minimum of 10 weeks’ paid vacation, a health and benefits package, and an 8% pension contribution.
“Our current proposal offers an average salary of $216,580 in two years — a 13% increase (by the end of the new contract) in one of the most affordable big cities in the nation,” Berke said.
She also said orchestra members also benefit from the orchestra’s Musician Appreciation Fund. ”Each member of the Orchestra received additional payments of nearly $8,000 in 2022 and close to $5,500 in 2023 from the Musician Appreciation Fund,” she said.
The musicians’ union notes players haven’t recovered from recent pay cuts on top of lagging salary growth.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the musicians agreed to pay cuts that amounted to about $52,000 per player or about $6 million, Davidson said, while the orchestra received about $30 million in federal and state COVID relief.
Boston Symphony Orchestra’s musicians also took pay cuts during the pandemic. In their recently settled contract, the Boston musicians received a 14% increase in their contract’s first year, 7% in the second and 3% in the third.
With the orchestra’s 2011 bankruptcy, the Philly musicians also lost their defined benefit pension plan and now have a less lucrative 403(b) plan, similar to a 401(k), which includes an employer contribution. Davidson said the musicians are seeking an increased contribution.
Between surpluses, endowments and other funding, Davidson said the union believes the Philadelphia Orchestra and Kimmel Center Inc. have the funds to meet the union’s demands.
The players say their lagging pay levels and diminished benefits are keeping the orchestra from being able to fill its 15 vacancies and stand to threaten the quality of their great orchestra.
“Our salaries and our retirement benefits have been decimated, while vacancies have long gone unfilled,” said William Polk, orchestra violinist and member of the union’s negotiating committee. “Authorizing a strike is an important next step to show the orchestra’s management, and our great city, that the Philadelphia orchestra musicians stand together. We will not allow this miraculous ensemble to be downgraded into something merely ordinary.”
The orchestra members have had some recent shows of support.
During an open rehearsal on Aug. 11 in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., orchestra music and artistic director Yannick Nézet-Séguin and piano soloist Bruce Liu joined their union colleagues and donned Local 77 T-shirts in a show of solidarity during the performance. Music directors usually don’t get involved in labor disputes or make public comments on them.
If there is a strike, it would not be a first for the orchestra.
In 2016, the musicians walked out as an audience sat awaiting their arrival on stage for the orchestra’s opening-night gala. That was a Friday evening. A contract deal was hammered out by the end of that weekend.
In 1996, the orchestra went on strike for 64 days. That walkout surpassed the orchestra’s 1966 strike. That work stoppage lasted 58 days.