Labor-state musicians out on strike

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Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra musicians have gone on strike just two days before the orchestra is set to open its 45th season. Twenty chamber musicians picketed the Overture Center on State Street during what would've been a scheduled rehearsal.

The orchestra's opening Masterworks concert scheduled for Friday at the Capitol Theatre -- featuring international violin virtuoso Kyoko Takezawa -- might have to be canceled.

"After the progress that has been made, this is disheartening, frankly," said WCO Executive Director Doug Gerhart. "We were through a lot of tough stuff. We had agreements and this is very rash to walk out at this point."

"They went backwards on their last proposal," countered Todd Jelen, a bassoonist and a member of the WCO musicians committee. "Everything we want is in earlier contracts. We realize we're not going to get everything, but we need certain things to go forth."

The orchestra contract expired Aug. 31, but the two sides began negotiating in early March of this year. The musicians said they would strike if the two sides couldn't reach an accord by 4 p.m. today.

Both WCO management and its employees were hopeful earlier in the afternoon that a new contract was close at hand. The sides will meet again Thursday morning to attempt a resolution.

Friday's concert is about 70 percent sold. If it must be canceled, Gerhart said orchestra staff will be in contact with every person who bought a ticket offering a full refund or the option to exchange for another concert.

Though the chamber musicians had been hinting at strike for months, Gerhart called it "shocking," saying staff had compromised on several major issues -- including wages, a pension plan for musicians, peer review and the number of rehearsals and performances (called "services") each contracted musician must attend.

The WCO wants a contract with 87 percent mandatory attendance. For the last two years, musicians had to attend 90 percent of services, which Jelen called "impossible to maintain."

Industry standard, he argued, is closer to 50 percent, because so many musicians have multiple jobs, sometimes in different states.

Gerhart pointed to a large pay jump, going from about $68 per service to $140 for rehearsals and $170 for concerts, as the reason why the WCO management shaved only three percent off required attendance.

"We are now one of the highest-paid per service orchestras in the country," Gerhart said. "So in exchange for that, the commitment in return was the orchestra would make 90 percent of the work offered to them."

More money aside, that's not acceptable, Jelen said. "We've told them so many times, this is not about money."

Also at issue is the process of "just cause," or how a musician is fired for nonartistic reasons such as insufficient attendance and insubordination. The procedure for just cause includes a series of steps that seem standard: Was the employee told about the problem? Did he or she have time to change behavior? Was punishment doled out equally?

As it is now, Jelen said, someone can be fired "on the spot" for certain offenses without recourse.

Gerhart said the orchestra staff had already agreed to the wording for just cause.

"It's in the contract," he said.

Another point of contention in the contract is peer review. Without it, a musician can be fired for "artistic reasons" by a conductor without any recourse. Peer review involves a group of fellow musicians who decide whether the conductor's decision was valid or arbitrary. It might not change his decision; Jelen said that peer review committees side with the maestro more than 80 percent of the time.

WCO management agreed to peer review with a 6-7 ratio to overturn a conductor's decision; employees want a 5-7 ratio. That, and many other things, might have to be re-negotiated now.

WCO employs 34 contracted musicians and produces 29 concerts annually, including the popular Concerts on the Square, the Masterworks Series, a Halloween concert and Holiday Pops.

Friday marks the opening of the 2008-09 season. Guest artist Kyoko Takezawa is scheduled to play the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E Minor.

Both sides say they hope the show can go on.

"I've negotiated many contracts, and I've never had an orchestra walk out," said Gerhart, who joined the WCO as executive director on June 1. "We care about them. We're proud that they're our musicians."

Jelen said the timing of the strike was deliberate, to give patrons a few days' notice and keep the staff from stalling.

"Last week we were there and they were trying to stall through playing the concert and not sufficiently taking care of our needs," Jelen said. "We hope they'll come back with a better proposal tomorrow so we can actually play the concert. That's the best possible scenario."


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