In a conference call Friday night, Rutter told orchestra leaders that the 96 musicians would receive their last paycheck on April 3 and that they will not be paid until the arts center reopens. In addition, she said their health-care benefits would stop at the end of May if the arts center is still closed at that time. The announcement was characterized by several NSO members as a shock.
Ed Malaga, president of Local 161-710 of the American Federation of Musicians, described the decision as outrageous and said the union has filed a grievance challenging what it believes is an illegal action.
“This decision, from an organization with an endowment of nearly $100 million, is not only outrageous — coming after the musicians had expressed their willingness to discuss ways to accommodate the Kennedy Center during this challenging time — it is also blatantly illegal under the parties’ collective bargaining agreement. That agreement specifically requires that the Center provide six weeks’ notice before it can stop paying musicians for economic reasons,” Malaga said in a statement.
The union’s grievance letter was sent to Gary Ginstling, the NSO’s executive director, and argues: “While the Union understands that the Kennedy Center has decided to cancel all performances through May 10, 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, those cancellations do not give the Association any contractual basis for failing to comply” with its collective bargaining agreement.
Rutter told her staff earlier in the week that she was suspending her $1.2 million salary until the crisis ended, saying she needed to be the first to sacrifice and that more cuts were coming. Weekly payroll for the musicians is $400,000, an arts center spokeswoman said.
“Without concerts and the corresponding ticket revenue, it is an unsustainable strategy to pay musicians to stay at home during this forced and still undefined quarantine period,” Rutter said in a statement on Saturday. “These cuts combined with anticipated administrative staff furloughs and potential layoffs may seem drastic, however, we know the only way through this is for all union and non-union employees to participate in the solution. The other unions within the Center have also experienced this furlough and are not or will not be receiving compensation.”
According to Rutter’s statement, the $25 million would “provide long-term cash flow for essential personnel to ensure that we can reopen the Center and re-employ our staff and musicians.”
In an interview earlier this week, Rutter noted that a two-month closure, representing the most optimistic scenario, would result in income losses of $20 million.
Cellist Steven Honigberg, a member of the orchestra since 1984, posted the news on Facebook. “This is of course shocking news to the 96 symphony musicians under union contract — and this despite a $25 million boost earmarked specifically for the Kennedy Center in today’s passed historic stimulus bill that is designed to help employees maintain footing during this pandemic war,” Honigberg wrote. “This edict from Kennedy Center’s President Deborah Rutter, out of the blue, is illegal in various forms and will certainly be contested by expensive lawyers. Thanks (NOT) Deborah for your compassion for the musicians of your National Symphony Orchestra in this time of unprecedented peril. This is not OUR fault.”
When reached Saturday, the orchestra’s spokeswoman said she had just learned of the decision. Rutter could not immediately be reached for comment.
In February, the coronavirus forced the orchestra to cancel a trip to Japan and China that would have taken place this month — its first international tour under the baton of Gianandrea Noseda. Another highlight of the season, “Beethoven at 250,” featuring the orchestra performing and recording all nine symphonies between May 28 and June 14, has not been canceled.