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Kennedy Center and NSO musicians reach agreement to avert furloughs

Gianandrea Noseda conducts the National Symphony Orchestra in a 2017 performance at the Anthem in Washington. (John Shore)

The furloughing of the musicians of the National Symphony Orchestra has been averted with a restructured contract that will result in $4 million in savings, the Kennedy Center announced Tuesday.

The deal includes immediate pay cuts until early September, a wage freeze and a delayed pay increase and extends the current contract for a year, to 2024, according to the arts center. It avoids the open-ended furlough that was supposed to have started Monday.

The agreement is a significant step that will help ease the financial stress caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Since closing last month because of social distancing guidelines, the arts center has canceled at least 431 performances that could result in losses exceeding $20 million. The arts center remains closed through at least May 10.

The center faced widespread criticism for laying off and furloughing more than 1,100 employees, including the 96 members of the NSO, within days of learning it would receive $25 million in emergency federal funding. The musicians union called the furloughs illegal and filed a formal grievance. Kennedy Center President and CEO Deborah Rutter cited the pandemic as an exigent circumstance that gave her leeway.

The $4 million in concessions is equal to about 10 weeks of the musicians’ payroll, which is roughly $400,000 weekly, according to the Kennedy Center. The now-canceled furloughs would have lasted at least six weeks.

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Ed Malaga, president of American Federation of Musicians Local 161-710, said the musicians were pleased to resolve the grievance and avoid furloughs.

“I don’t know why it couldn’t have happened before [the furloughs were announced],” Malaga said. “The musicians had communicated with management their desire to have exactly this kind of conversation, to work collaboratively to address the issues.

“I think the musicians of the orchestra are feeling much better about the terms going forward,” he said.

Rutter also expressed gratitude that an agreement was reached.

“This is an unprecedented time for all of us here in D.C. and around the world,” she said in a statement. “The severe economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have unfolded at an incredibly rapid pace, requiring all of us to work together and demanding the highest levels of strategic and creative thinking to solve our problems in the long-term. We are grateful to the musicians of the NSO for partnering with us and that, together, we have found a way forward.”

The Kennedy Center declined interview requests from The Washington Post following Tuesday’s announcement.

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The deal is a big win for the musicians, said Mark Gaston Pearce, executive director of the Workers Rights Institute at Georgetown University Law Center and former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board. In his view, the furloughs violated both the collective bargaining agreement and national labor law.

“The union had them over a barrel. If they lost, the musicians would be entitled to back pay plus interest. That allowed them to engage in some bargaining,” he said. “The musicians were able to negotiate some concessions which will help out the Kennedy Center and gain the added stability and security of another year [on the current contract].”

Pearce said the arts center’s decision to furlough before negotiating could have been an intentional gambit by Rutter. “It certainly had a lot of shock value. Her technique might have been to punch the union in the face to see if they would fold and give up more than they would have otherwise,” he said. Instead, he said it created an opportunity for the union.

Kennedy Center spokeswoman Eileen Andrews said every negotiation has a natural back and forth. “While the process isn’t always elegant, we are pleased with the outcome here,” she wrote in an email to The Post.

The new agreement will save the Kennedy Center $2.5 million over the next six months. The musicians agreed to a 25 percent pay cut to their minimum weekly salary through Aug. 10 and to forgo their four-week vacation period in August should the orchestra schedule events during that period. If they work between Aug. 10 and Sept. 7, the end of the season, their base pay will be cut by 15 percent.

The pay cuts will end with the start of the new season on Sept. 8, but wages will be frozen and an expected salary increase will be delayed to 2021-22. The previous four-year contract has been extended a year, to September 2024. The wage freeze and deferred increase result in an additional $1.5 million in savings, according to the Kennedy Center.

Several musicians praised the orchestra committee and union leadership for the quick resolution, but they continued to question the Kennedy Center’s actions and motives. One said Rutter used the pandemic to exact more concessions than this situation requires so she could address other financial problems. Another said the arts center’s officials realized they would lose a legal battle if its furloughs were challenged. Both requested anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss the agreement.

“The pay cuts are fair. We are not working, thus no money is coming to the Kennedy Center,” one of the musicians added. “We all have people to take care of, mortgages, car payments, college tuition, bills and food to put on our tables. We are thankful to the committee that this issue was quickly resolved.”

Pearce, the Georgetown law professor, believes the Kennedy Center didn’t expect the public backlash.

“I don’t think the Kennedy Center estimated the court of public opinion,” he added. “This coming in the wake of the federal grant, that didn’t play too well.”

The musicians and management have agreed to discuss ways to share new and archived content during the closure, and Malaga said orchestra members have pledged at least $50,000 over the next 10 weeks to help support the NSO administrative staff, many of whom have been furloughed until May 11, along with other Kennedy Center employees.