Pacific Symphony and Musicians' Union Out of Tune on Contract Agreement Talks

Pacific Symphony Orchestra Christmas show
Pacific Symphony Orchestra Christmas show

The Pacific Symphony is heading into its fall season with the sounds of a labor dispute. Negotiations between representatives with American Federation of Musicians (AFM) and Pacific Symphony broke down with the previous contract agreement expiring on August 31. The issue at hand centers on the lack of guaranteed weekly or annual wages for musicians who perform with Pacific Symphony. 

"Over the years, our own performances have helped grow the orchestra to where it is right now," Adam Neeley, a violinist and Chair of the Musicians' Bargaining Committee, tells the Weekly. "What we are asking for is stability and predictability of income, but it's more than about the money."

The Pacific Symphony began in 1978 as a collaboration between Cal State Fullerton and community members with shows being held at Fullerton High School's Plummer Auditorium. By 2006, they moved to the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa where the symphony's annual budget has grown to roughly $20 million dollars. 

Symphony musicians are demanding a share of the budget to go towards guaranteed wages and work. "Because of our structure, we're often asked to perform with less rehearsals than other orchestras," Neeley says. "There's no incentive for more time to play together." The violinist says that the Pacific Symphony is the only professional orchestra of its size not to grant working musicians any such protections, noting that his peers elsewhere also enjoy health care coverage. Fellow musicians scrape by, in some cases, with less than $20,000 a year, he adds. 

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Just last week, 82 full-time musicians with the San Diego Symphony secured a five-year agreement that will increase annual salaries up to $80,000 by 2021. "The Pacific Symphony is 37 years old and has never had a wage guarantee beyond the wage musicians receives for each rehearsal or performance," Bob Sanders, AFM Local 7 President, said in a press release. "Musicians fear that current members will continue to move on to other orchestras that have predictable salaries." The union last negotiated a pay freeze in 2013 in exchange for a combined 5 percent raise over the past two seasons.

"Although talks are on hold while the board of directors reviews possible solutions, we expect that they will resume shortly and move toward resolution," says Jean Oelrich, Pacific Symphony's Director of Marketing and Communications. "The Pacific Symphony board maintains its commitment to a contract that provides stable and meaningful work for musicians while ensuring the long-term sustainability of the organization." 

The lack of the contract agreement won't affect the upcoming 2016-2017 season that begins on September 13 with Renee Fleming's at the Segerstrom Concert Hall. It's one that commemorates 10 years of performing at the venue. Despite the break down of negotiations, musicians are hopeful that a harmonious resolution will be reached. For now, they play on without a contract. 

"While we're quite frustrated that we spent 60 hours at the bargaining table and we feel that our concerns are not being addressed," Neeley says, "We are enthusiastic about going back to the table and having a productive conversation." 


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