Negotiating in the Midst of a Worldwide Pandemic

May 26, 2020

As spring 2020 approached, Local 72-147 was preparing for one of the busiest negotiating seasons in many years, with the musicians of the Dallas and Fort Worth Symphonies, the Dallas Opera Orchestra, East Texas Symphony and Dallas Summer Musicals all preparing to negotiate successor agreements with their managements. With the outbreak of COVID-19 creating a shutdown of public gatherings and stay-at-home orders for individuals across DFW, these musicians found themselves with current performance seasons shuttered. Previously unimaginable, force majeure provisions were invoked by some employers, and others through application for SBA PPP loans made available through the CARES Act, passed on March 27, were able to maintain various levels of contracted wages through the spring months.
Early in the emergency, talks were held with management of the Dallas Symphony Association, and an agreement was reached to extend the current agreement set to expire on August 31 one additional year. Wages are to remain unchanged throughout the extension and in consideration of the company’s not declaring force majeure, musicians agreed to some minor modifications. The agreement was ratified by the musicians on March 24.
Similarly, musicians of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra reached an agreement with management for a one year extension of the current agreement set to expire on July 31. Wages will remain unchanged through the extension, a new full time position (oboe 3/English Horn) will be added to the orchestra, and mutual respect provisions were approved. The agreement was ratified by the musicians on May 9.
The Dallas Opera was hit especially hard by the shutdown, as its season was beginning a final block of three full productions and other performances in March. With the cancellation of three fifths of its season, the company announced that its seasonal employees – including all contracted musicians – would continue to be paid at the level of 50% contracted wages for the remainder of the season. Through the weeks of March and April the Union negotiated a side letter committing TDO to pay core orchestra members and extras at this level, and with full health and welfare benefit payments and pension contributions. Contingent on this agreement was the AFM’s agreement to an additional side letter extending media rights to the company to aid in its engagement with patrons through the period of shutdown. The musicians of the Dallas Opera Orchestra ratified both side letters on April.
As the current agreement with The Dallas Opera is set so expire on June 30, musicians have already returned to the table to negotiate a successor agreement. Within the context of discussions and studies of how public gatherings and musical performances will move forward under presumed restrictions on gatherings and strictures on safe social distancing and more unknown than known, talks are moving forward.
As with Dallas Opera, talks for successor agreements are ongoing with East Texas Symphony and Dallas Summer Musicals. While concerts were canceled without remuneration for ETSO and DSM musicians, ETSO has engaged in fundraising efforts to provide relief payments for musicians. Other DFW regional orchestras have responded in different ways. Wichita Falls Symphony, for example, responded by postponing its April concert to mid August rather than a flat cancellation. Lawton Philharmonic was one of the few Local 72-147 regional orchestras to provide wages for canceled services in April through funding of an SBA PPP loan.
Other employers have demonstrated less concern for musicians and patrons. Las Colinas Symphony Orchestra, which has maintained significant a dispute with Local 72-147 in connection with its locking out of 21 of its musicians earlier in the season, canceled its final three concerts of the season with no move to soften the economic affects to its musicians, while it informed musicians that 70% of its ticket buyers were donating the cost of tickets.
While agreements for extension were reached with DSO and FWSO preserving wages and benefits, discussions continue with these groups – and all groups – to address the challenges now before the entire entertainment industry.
Media rights have been a major issue in this crisis, as the temporary extension of streaming rights has been granted by the AFM to symphonic employers who have maintained pay throughout this period, to help maintain engagement with audiences and donors. As a side letter was negotiated with The Dallas Opera in April, negotiations are ongoing with the other major employers for similar rights.
“These unprecedented times have challenged musicians and employers as never before,” said Local 72-147 President Stewart Williams. “There has never been a time where our solidarity and commitment to protecting our profession and art form was more important than it is today,” he said.