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How a dispute with a handful of Strathmore ticket-sellers led to impasse with Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, canceled concerts

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra performing at Strathmore Music Center in 2018. (Maximilian Franz)
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It started two years ago, when Strathmore began negotiating a union contract for a handful of full-time and part-time box office workers. Then came the pandemic, which forced the North Bethesda venue to close for more than a year and stalled talks with employees who had no tickets to sell.

Now, with the venue reopened, comes another devastating blow. The unresolved labor contract — and the specter of a strike — has caused a rift between Strathmore and its founding partner, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Unable to agree on how to proceed — and who would bear the financial burden — if there were a strike, the BSO has moved or canceled the first 11 concerts it had planned for Strathmore, the hall it considers its second home.

The escalation of events — from a contract with about a dozen employees to an ugly public battle between two of Maryland’s flagship arts institutions — has alarmed civic, arts and union leaders, who have expressed dismay over how Strathmore could allow the situation to spin so far out of control.

Montgomery County officials this week pressed Strathmore’s leaders to end the stalemate.

“I’m in a wait-and-see mode, but I hope I’m not going to wait and see too long,” Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich said Tuesday. “It’s a county facility and what happens there will reflect on the image of the county. We have a vested interest in a solution that everyone thinks is fair and doesn’t leave the county damaged.”

Baltimore Symphony moves concerts from Strathmore amid union impasse

Built on 16 acres of county land, the venue is run by the Strathmore Hall Foundation, a nonprofit organization governed by a 30-member board of directors. Six members are appointed by the county executive and approved by the Montgomery County Council, and two more are designated representatives of the executive and the council. It receives county and state funding.

The BSO has performed at Strathmore since it opened in 2005. For its 2021-22 subscription season, the orchestra had planned 58 concerts at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore and 31 at Strathmore.

Strathmore president and chief executive Monica Jeffries Hazangeles said that while she appreciates the county’s help and encouragement, any involvement in contract negotiations would be inappropriate, and illegal, because Strathmore is an independent operation.

“Strathmore is not a municipal entity, nor is the county government involved in our day-to-day operations — and more importantly is not a party to our collective bargaining agreements. Because of that and the ongoing matters before the National Labor Relations Board, we have been especially careful to respect our independent roles,” Jeffries Hazangeles said in an email. “That said, Strathmore has communicated regularly with the county to keep officials informed, as appropriate.”

As the stalemate continues, local leaders are pointing to Strathmore as the problem, especially in its handling of the BSO.

“To say a labor dispute with ticket-takers is driving this is ridiculous,” said former Montgomery county executive Douglas Duncan. “It has been mishandled by Strathmore. The BSO is not a tenant. They are a founding partner. They are the reason that we have Strathmore.”

“I wish I understood Monica’s logic but it makes no sense,” said David McIntyre, president of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 22, the union representing the venue’s stagehands. “Strathmore was built to be the southern home for the BSO. If she succeeds in driving them out, how is that a win for anyone? She picked a strange hill to die on.”

McIntyre said he is concerned that Strathmore’s approach to the ticket-sellers and the BSO is a sign of how it will bargain with Local 22, whose contract expires next August. “It’s union-busting,” he said.

Jeffries Hazangeles says Strathmore is being fair and showing “common business sense.”

“We respect the rights of our employees to be represented and will continue to nurture a fair and viable relationship with our union colleagues into the future,” she said. “It is not union-busting to say we won’t pay workers when they are not working or that we won’t keep the ticket office open when there is no demand.”

Steven P. Hollman, chairman of Strathmore’s board of directors, expressed support for Jeffries Hazangeles. “I stand behind the statements already provided by our CEO, Ms. Jeffries Hazangeles,” Hollman wrote in an email. Board members Karen R. Lefkowitz and Ann L. McDaniel offered similar statements.

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'It's about equity'

The union contract is at the heart of Strathmore’s two separate but connected battles. In two years of negotiating, IATSE Local 868 has filed two complaints with the NLRB over what it says is Strathmore’s bad-faith bargaining. Strathmore has settled both complaints, and the two sides have been in mediation.

The parties are arguing over work schedules, with the union saying Strathmore refuses to guarantee 40 hours of work for its few full-time box office employees and is asking for flexibility to reduce the hours of others.

“Our belief is that they are trying to break the union, trying to get people to quit by not guaranteeing full-time work,” said Local 868 Business Agent Anne Vantine.

Strathmore argues that it needs flexibility to schedule workers as events require. “We don’t think it is fair to ask for guarantees when there is no work,” Jeffries Hazangeles said.

Union leaders also question the cost of the impasse, saying Strathmore has spent money on lawyers that it could have directed toward employee wages. They also point to Strathmore’s decision to lease on-site ticket kiosks to provide touch-free services to patrons; the annual leases for the kiosks cost more than paying a box office employee, the union maintains.

It’s not just about economics, Jeffries Hazangeles countered.

“It’s about equity with our other employees, who were furloughed and had their compensation reduced” during the pandemic, she said.

Strathmore, like other arts organizations, received federal assistance during the pandemic, including more than $2.9 million in a Shuttered Venues Operators Grant and $1.9 million in two Paycheck Protection Program loans intended to keep employees working.

Since August, Strathmore has hosted eight performances in its main concert hall and four dozen outdoor concerts, receptions and private parties, Jeffries Hazangeles said. “Live music is happening here,” she said. “Our focus and priority is to have our audiences, artists and employees back in the hall.”

But the BSO has not returned, and that has become an even bigger problem for Strathmore. The two organizations cannot agree on the terms of their annual licensing agreement, a document that confirms the dates the orchestra reserved two years earlier and records the financial and legal terms for the season.

Unions say arts organizations are using the pandemic to cut pay. Companies facing losses say they have no choice.

This summer, after Local 868 voted to authorize a strike, Strathmore amended the annual agreement to include language stating that, in the event of a strike, it would hire replacement workers. BSO balked at that addition, explaining that signing the document would violate the contracts it has with its own unions and that it couldn’t ask its unionized workers to cross a picket line.

There is also a question of money. Strathmore believes the BSO is responsible for the $14,208 rental fee for each of the dates it reserved. The BSO disagrees.

In July, in an attempt to pressure the BSO to sign the agreement, Strathmore removed all promotional material for BSO concerts from its website. It also informed the orchestra that it would release the dates it had reserved and sold tickets for. If it booked other events for those dates, Strathmore said, the BSO would not be responsible for rent.

After months of back and forth, the BSO announced in mid-September that it would move its first two Strathmore concerts to the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore. In the following weeks it relocated two more and canceled two.

“Our intent in relocating concerts has been to relieve pressure and give them time and space to negotiate,” said BSO vice president and chief operating officer Tonya McBride Robles.

Last month, the BSO offered a compromise: The orchestra would sign a temporary agreement for three concerts this month and pay the full rental fee for all of them, even if a strike caused the performances to be canceled.

Jeffries Hazangeles rejected the compromise, in part, she said, because the proposal did not guarantee that the BSO would be responsible for the previous six dates it had not used.

“They are making those decisions based purely on speculation [of a strike],” she said. “It seems they are refusing to sign to avoid the financial responsibility for the dates they reserved.”

As a result, the BSO canceled four concerts and moved another to Baltimore. It will not perform at Strathmore for the rest of the year.

The BSO is frustrated about being caught in the middle of Strathmore’s labor issue, Robles said, especially when musicians and audiences are eager to return to live concerts.

“We have never been in a situation where we don’t control what’s happening with the labor issue. This impacts us deeply, and this is not our choice,” Robles said. “We know that negotiations are hard and we know they are complex. We want them to resolve their problems so that we can all get back to playing amazing music.”

If Strathmore and the union reach an agreement, the BSO could return for a concert of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 on Jan. 6.

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