Picketers held signs reading “On Strike” beneath a stylized Pittsburgh skyline bearing the word “Musicians” — though one placard asked “What would Beethoven do?” The group included every member of the 99-strong orchestra who was in town, plus a few patrons, fellow musicians and sympathetic workers, all protesting a 15 percent pay cut, limits on new hiring and a freeze in the musicians' pensions.
Those cuts had been part of what Michah Howard, a double bass player in the orchestra as well as the chairman of the orchestra’s negotiating committee, labels the symphony’s “last, best and final offer.”
“These draconian cuts will change this orchestra forever,” Howard says, worrying that lowering the labor standard could harm the orchestra’s ability to attract and keep talent. “We want a fair contract that will ensure the excellence of our institution.”
In a press release, Melia Tourangeau, the PSO's president and CEO, defended the cuts as necessary for the long-term survival of the orchestra.
“Our most immediate challenge is that the runway is extremely short to address key financial circumstances,” Tourangeau said. “Which is why we need the musicians of the PSO to participate in the solution.”
Those “financial circumstances” include a $1.5 million budget deficit this year, as well as $11 million in existing debt.
Howard counters that he brought in independent actuaries to look over the orchestra's financials and says they're not as bleak as management says. He also notes that according to the PSO's own press release, ticket sales are 4 percent higher than expected.
“Most symphonies survive without balancing the budget year after year after year,” Howard said. “The financial situation is not as bleak as [the Symphony is] saying.”
The performers are members of Local 60-471 of the American Federation of Musicians, which covers all of Pittsburgh’s professional instrumentalists, accompanists, and troubadours. They have been negotiating with the PSO since February. After management presented its final offer, on Sept. 18, Howard and the musicians' negotiating committee brought in federal mediation, but no agreement could be brokered.
After a final round of negotiations Thursday, Howard says, it “became very clear” that the union had already received the PSO's final offer. So they decided to strike for only the second time in the orchestra's 121-year history. The last time was in 1975.
“We have real resolve [and] we do not take this lightly,” Howard says of the walk-out. The symphony members planned to keep striking until a “fair contract” is reached.
The work stoppage also forced the cancellation of a planned performance of “PNC Pops: The Music of John Williams” over the weekend. In its stead, a chorus of sympathy honks filled the street as the protesters, some in jackets, braved the first autumn chill.
The canceled performances didn’t bother Alice Gelormino, a Shady Side resident and symphony patron who’s moved from “the peanut gallery to the left box.” She heard about the strike while in a German class, and immediately cut out and headed Downtown to join the picket line.
Standing in the shadow of Heinz’s Hall’s marquee, Gelormino grasped a sign reading “I support PSO musicians.” While aware of the financial difficulties facing the orchestra, Gelormino, who is herself a donor, says there is no excuse for the proposed cuts.
“I think [the musicians] deserve a fair and just wage,” Gelormino says. “We’re a growing city with a lot of support for the arts. [The symphony] has to be creative to find the means and ways to fund it.”
Under gray skies, a picket line of yellow-shirted Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra musicians and their supporters circled Heinz Hall this morning to demand a new contract after negotiations between labor and management fell apart the night before.