Sound of Silence: The Philadelphia Orchestra Latest to Strike

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On Friday, Philadelphia concert-goers were met with the sound of silence.

The “Opening Night Gala” – slated to kick-off Philadelphia Orchestra’s season – was cancelled as musicians walked off the job to protest a new labor agreement that offered no pay increases for three years, followed by negligible improvements in the next two years.

As audience members filed out, some musicians emerged in the lobby of the Kimmel Center in center city carrying picket signs. While some donors booed the striking maestros, other audience members expressed support through applause and cheers.

Four years ago, The Philadelphia Orchestra emerged from a painful bankruptcy that saw a hiring freeze and staff cuts. The orchestra – among the most famous in the United States and a keystone cultural institution in the city of Philadelphia – also scaled back the size of its orchestra. The deal that the musicians walked out over also prevented the acquisition of more players to meet the pre-bankruptcy number – a promise that administrators had previously made.

Just Sunday, however, the musicians – belonging to American Federation of Musicians Local 77 – reached an agreement, bringing the short  strike to an end. The players were able to successfully negotiate a reversal of the musician hiring freeze, as well as pay increases over the next two years.

The orchestra’s chief executive, Allison Vulgamore, discussed the successful negotiations with reporters:

We now have a tentative agreement that will immediately restore our music to our audiences and provide our outstanding musicians with a compensation plan that both increases their base salaries and provides additional financial reward as we continue to build resources for a vibrant and exciting future.

This week’s strike is The Philadelphia Orchestra’s first since 1996.

The classical musical world has been rocked in recent months with similar actions. The Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra also walked out on Friday to protest a planned 15 percent pay cut. Earlier in September, The Forth Worth Symphony Orchestra also went on strike, and remains so to this day. The freeze-out flared up due to continuous pay cuts over the past several years. 

Large arts institutions have struggled in recent years, dealing with declining interest and other economic forces that have proved damaging to these storied organizations. Some counter examples – such as the Arizona Opera – have showed that such institutions can not only recover but open up new revenue streams.

For the sake of the United States’ cultural vibrancy, let’s hope that arts administrators can channel some of this successful energy for their own organizations.

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