The New York Philharmonic Strike of 1973: Part II

By Kuan Cheng Lu

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On September 25, 1973, shortly after its performance, the one hundred and six musicians of the New York Philharmonic went on strike. It was apparent that negotiations between the Society and AFM Local 802 had broken down. The next day, they were forming picket lines outside Avery Fisher Hall instead of rehearsing on stage.

In response, the Philharmonic Society announced that they would cancel all performances until further notice. Because stagehands and other employees at the Hall expressed reluctance to cross the line, there was a possibility that other events might also have to be canceled.

The Philharmonic musicians had last struck in 1961 when fighting for a year-round contract and more involvement in contract negotiations. That strike lasted a week. This time they emphasized different matters. With skyrocketing inflation and management persistently trying to enforce a regressive contract, musicians felt it would be impossible to live in a city like New York, where the cost of living was prohibitively high. They felt the Society’s latest offer was a sham. “What self-respecting individual or union could consider a 3% increase let alone one that was coupled with an increase in workload?,” flyers asked. “The Society’s wage offer is truly a cut in pay.”[1] The Philharmonic’s work schedule had always been one of the most demanding—perhaps the most demanding in the symphonic world. Yet management wanted to expand it.

During the contract that ran from 1970 to 1973, they had done at least seventeen more rehearsals, and five more concerts, each year, compared to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The union estimated this value at more than $20 per week for each musician. Management had also refused to investigate requests that musicians insisted were necessary to their work, such as disability insurance, saying they would not offer it anyway.

While the public seemed sympathetic, bassist Orin O’Brien remembered a number of people stopping to comment: “Why do you want to be paid? You love your work, that should be enough!”[2] The New York Times went further, questioning the musicians’ motivation and goal: “The 3 per cent prestrike pay offer by the Philharmonic is clearly less than its musicians have a right to demand, both on the basis of comparability and of skyrocketing living costs. But if they push their settlement price into the stratosphere simply because Mr. Fisher’s generosity has inflated their expectations, the sole effect will be to discourage other public-spirited citizens from coming to the aid of the arts.”[3]

But the musicians had submitted their proposal in mid-June, long before there was any inkling of a donation, and their proposal was based upon real economic needs and working conditions. The Times did not mention the Philharmonic Society’s demand for a heavier performance schedule, its proposals of several cuts in fringe areas, or its refusal to offer improvements in health, welfare, and pension programs.

Flyers raised other questions. Why didn’t the Philharmonic Society report how much money it raised, and its sources? Why didn’t they detail information concerning assets and expenditures? Why had they chosen to announce Fisher’s gift the day the musicians’ contract expired? And what did it say that the board chairman left on vacation hours when the orchestra agreed nevertheless to continue playing?[4]

Almost every able Philharmonic musician participated. Each day, twelve musicians picketed around Avery Fisher Hall from 10 A.M. to 10 P.M. on three-hour shifts.

Philharmonic bassist Orin O’Brien and Philharmonic fourth horn Aubrey Facenda picketing outside Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Philharmonic bassist Orin O’Brien and Philharmonic fourth horn Aubrey Facenda picketing outside Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Mayor Lindsay immediately expressed his concern and asked Vincent D. McDonnell, chairman of the State Mediation board, to enter the dispute. McDonnell quickly set up meetings. Management’s lawyer, Martin Oppenheimer, argued that the musicians had been misleading. New York was a major musical city; there was plenty of opportunity to earn more money. Each musician had, for example, $1000 in recording and television guaranteed pay each year; the musicians of the Chicago and Cleveland orchestras had none. Moreover, the comparison was unfair. Chicago’s Orchestra Association had a $2.5 million endowment, and better fundraising because of less competition. It also rented its orchestra out for the summer, paid $200,000 less for its hall, and did not have to share a deficit with Lincoln Center. Rabinowitz, the union’s lawyer, responded by saying that it seemed the board was incapable of running the organization; they should resign, and get a board that could fulfill its public service.[5]

McDonnell told the press he foresaw a long strike.

The Society immediately sent a letter to its subscribers explaining its position: the Philharmonic became the first orchestra in the United States to engage its musicians for a 52-week season every year in 1964; the minimum scale player’s total earnings and benefits had risen from $14,004 in 1964 to $23,481 in 1973 (almost $5000 between 1970 and 1973 alone); because of paid vacations and reduced workload, the Society had twenty-eight fewer rehearsals and twelve fewer concerts per year than in 1964.[6]

Two days later, Local 802 responded with a press conference. Max Aarons said the union had cut down its demands to a “package of wage and fringe benefit improvements that fall well within the federal guidelines,” and that “the channeling of the Avery Fisher funds to Lincoln Center was primarily a bookkeeping device.” On that note, he added, “It seems incredible, in the light of the Society’s pleas of poverty, that these monies, given by a gentleman who is a live music enthusiast, whose first commercial product was named Philharmonic Radio, would be directed to the landlord rather than to the Orchestra.”

Harold Lawrence, the Society’s new manager, told the New York Times that they had not been told of any revised union demand, that current demands did not fall within federal guidelines, and that the Society’s offer was much more substantial than the union claimed.

The stalemate continued until October 14, when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra ended a four-week strike for a three-year contract that included a $60 weekly raise over three years that would pay a minimum weekly scale of $380 in the third year, plus improvements to fringe benefits. The musicians insisted that their contract should at least match Chicago’s, given the higher cost of living. Ames told the New York Times, this was “a travesty of logic.”

Days earlier, the union informed the musicians that Lincoln Center had filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in an attempt to halt their picketing (a secondary boycott). Local 802 had to agree not to stop or penalize musicians crossing the picket line, other than Philharmonic members.

Musicians elsewhere rallied to their cause. Philadelphia’s Orchestra announced that it would cancel the first of ten scheduled concerts at Avery Fisher Hall because of the picket line. And the National Symphony Orchestra changed the opening venue in its annual New York series to Carnegie Hall out of respect, even distributed their own leaflets about the strike to audience members. The Boston Symphony relocated two of its concerts also.

Concert Program, 29 October 1973 - A Special Emergency Strike Fund Concert in Carnegie Hall.

Concert Program, 29 October 1973 - A Special Emergency Strike Fund Concert in Carnegie Hall.

But no other union members at Avery Fisher Hall were observing the picket line; the Stage Hands, Electricians, Ushers, and Treasurers (box office) unions remained on the job. And the loss of income put many striking musicians in financial jeopardy. Committees were created to fill every need. And many individuals had to come forward to provide support; the actor Paul Newman and his wife, Joanne Woodward, offered their Manhattan apartment several times as a venue for chamber music concerts. Despite a severe rainstorm, an emergency benefit concert at Carnegie Hall also raised $10,000 for the strike fund, and got high press marks. The public’s response gave the musicians a much needed boost of morale, uniting them in a far greater undertaking: a four-week tour of Spain, Portugal, and the Canary Islands, without the Society’s governance or assistance.

Orchestra Committee Sheet

Orchestra Committee Sheet

Soon after those plans were announced, a negotiation meeting was put together hurriedly, in which management made its final offer: a wage increase of $50 per week over three years; an improved pension plan with a $10,000 pension after 30 years of service at age 65; health and welfare benefits increase to $20,000 in the first year, $30,000 in the second year, and $35,000 in the third year of the contract; and an increase for the per diem of $34 for the first two years and $36 for the third year.[7] The Society claimed the cost would exceed $800,000 over the contract period, and require another $2 million to meet the operating deficit. A press release the next day stated, “This offer would make the orchestra the best paid orchestra in the world with pension and welfare benefits equal to any. This is as far as we can go… despite this generous offer, the orchestra has decided to go abroad.”

Plans to go to Spain may have been too far along. As these events unfolding, Ibermusica’s representative arrived in New York with a check for the musicians’ airfare, and a contract. The moment Ames became aware that a portion of the committee had gone off to sign, he withdrew the Society’s offer. At that point, the rest of the committee found itself with no choice but to join their colleagues and sign as well.

On November 7, the two sides attempted to return to the bargaining table, but the Society’s lawyer, Oppenheimer, did not appear. Ames sent a letter to orchestra members that day, however, enumerating four points he hoped would clear up misunderstandings. First: why the Society paid $200,000 (i.e., 40%) of the Hall’s annual deficit on top of its rental. The rental contract with Lincoln Center had been negotiated in 1959, and stipulated the percentage, “a simple method of determining our fair share of the total cost.” Ames had not been involved, directly, but stated that the contract had proven to be “unusually” favorable to the Philharmonic, given that other constituents in Lincoln Center had to bear the full costs of their own halls. Second: why the Philharmonic had to pay $211,000 per year for the acoustical renovation of Avery Fisher Hall when they did not own it. Again, the 1959 rental contract. But, Ames added, Lincoln Center had paid for a major part of the adjustments itself: “The important part of the money came from the income from extra seats in the Hall, and from separate funds which would otherwise not have been available to us.” As to criticism of his dual position as chairman of the Philharmonic and Lincoln Center, Ames defended his loyalty to the Philharmonic. And, lastly, he denied that management had fomented the strike: the musicians’ management had agreed to be bound by compulsory arbitration.

Ames laid out the costs at a meeting of the executive committee, soon after: for each additional week of strike, the orchestra as a whole would lose $45,000 of salary, welfare, and other benefits; the Society would lose $10,000 of income; Lincoln Center, Inc. would lose $23,000 on the Hall; and 11,200 ticket holders would be disappointed. The strikers were causing the arts in New York City to suffer, Ames insisted. And there was a local multiplier effect: “heavy losses for restaurants, etc. in the neighborhood.”

But the musicians held firm.

We will not be starved into an unfair contract by your false concern for concertgoers, nor will we be intimidated by your threats of lawsuits to whoever employs us or performs with us. We have already demonstrated our readiness to play and our own organizational skill to perform at Carnegie Hall or anywhere in the world under our own auspices... We leave for Europe with great regret. We prefer to perform for our own public in our own city, and we prefer that the
Philharmonic management arranges our business matters. We prefer to play music rather than plan travel arrangements, draw up contracts, and attend to the multitude of details necessary to move 100 musicians and instruments to Europe.[8]

On November 10, buses lined up to ferry the strikers to the airport. The union hired “a great brass band, the best New York could offer,” for a sendoff.

***

Philharmonic musicians performing at the Palau de la Música Catalana in Barcelona.

Philharmonic musicians performing at the Palau de la Música Catalana in Barcelona.

The tour of Portugal and Spain won the Philharmonic musicians’ a great amount of admiration. Journalists were eager to greet them upon their return, and reported that the orchestra’s sold-out, well-reviewed performance overseas had earned them offers from South American and Swiss promoters “for more pay-per-concert than they would get in New York even if their current demands are met.”[9] Gabriel Banat, the person most responsible for bringing the Iberian tour to fruition, recalled that almost immediately, he was contacted by the committee chairmen of all five major American orchestras, wanting to know how to organize such a tour.[10]

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Awaiting them also was a six-page ultimatum from Ames. The chairman offered little new, but summarized the major elements of the Society’s last proposal again, with comparisons to the best-paid orchestras in the country under each.

The orchestra committee remained bitterly divided over whether to ratify; the orchestra as a whole was similarly divided, with 60 percent for, and 40 percent against. Committee member Newton Mansfield recalled that if the musicians were to keep the strike going past Christmas and New Years, they would essentially be doing management a favor: one of the weeks musicians were on vacation, and the others were among the least audience-producing in the season.

But cellist Evangeline Benedetti had met an insurance broker who told Mansfield and Lorin Bernsohn in Spain that the Society had been buying a health insurance plan (Blue Cross) from one of the Philharmonic Society board members “as a favor.”[11] They could purchase a better plan at a much lower price from New England Mutual Life Insurance Company. Bernsohn and Mansfield immediately proposed the change. Management agreed, and the savings it generated left the Society with a considerable amount of unexpected money over the new contract term, which they also agreed to use to fund the string rotation system.

By a vote of 69 to 35, the musicians ratified a new three-year contract and ended their ten-week strike.

***

Donal Henahan of the New York Times, following the musicians’ ratification of the new contract wrote, “Musically, the casualty rate has been serious but hardly fatal ... the losses have been, by luck or otherwise, surprisingly light.”[12] But the strike had forced the Philharmonic Society to cancel forty-six concerts (thirty-five subscription), two “Prospective Encounters” events in Greenwich Village, six educational concerts, one special program on Long Island, one Young People’s Concert, and one concert conducted by Andre Kostelanetz. Not quite six months later, Harold Schonberg at the Times observed, “All [ten] weeks of programs had to be scratched; all the soloists were unheard. There must have been bitter tears; many of them were making their first appearances with the Philharmonic, and a Philharmonic date still carries a great deal of clout.”[13]

In the aftermath, both the Philharmonic Society and Lincoln Center conducted thorough evaluation, too —- of past cost, and potential future cost. The Society found an adverse effect on subscription renewals. And calculated that 74,412 tickets were sold to subscribers during the strike, a liability of $513,000, Ames said. Season ticket holders were given an option to donate their subscription to the Society, but as of January 18, 1974, this amounted to just $85,000. The Society was not responsible for paying the base rent on Lincoln Center if a performance had to be cancelled, however. So after factoring in the cancelled performances, its obligation for Avery Fisher Hall actually dropped, from 35 to 30 percent. Lincoln Center petitioned for the normal proportion, disregarding the lease agreement. But the institutions’ relationship remained strong. After the Fisher bequest, the Center even began entertaining the idea that the Philharmonic might become the Hall’s full-time occupant.

By contrast, bitter feelings among musicians, and mistrust of management, lingered long after the strike. All shared the same impression of Ames: he was distant, never showing any interest in getting to know them. Although he occupied the next room, he never even sat down with the committee face-to-face during negotiations.

They never quite got over suspicions about the Fisher bequest, which decreased to $6.5 million by 1975 due to securities market volatility. And they complained about other things, too; for example, that management renewed the music director’s contract through 1977, even though many felt he (Pierre Boulez) was “mediocre.” The New York Times reported that Boulez's programming created a “fierce outburst” from the audience as well, because of his mixture of contemporary music with avant-garde material. Musicians felt he hurt the box office intake. (Ames responded that the Society saw an increase of $100,000 the year he took over, and expected to fill the Hall to 96 percent of capacity in 1974-75.)

Nonetheless, the work stoppage revealed that the Society’s musicians were a force to be reckoned with. The strike tour was a historic undertaking that should be remembered as a pivotal moment in the orchestra’s history. The musicians were able to achieve a mission no one would have thought possible: to play as a self-managing group.

According to the Philharmonic violist Kenneth Mirkin, who has served on every negotiating committee since 1985, the strike also made a significant difference in subsequent negotiations. During the past four decades, musicians have seen a steady increase in salary, and relations with management have been on good terms. Only once since, Mirkin says, have negotiations neared the point of a strike, and the musicians
planned ahead, similarly, by making arrangements with the owner of the gallery across the street from Lincoln Center to play a free concert. Afterward, they were able to ratify a three-year contract that made them the highest-paid orchestra in America, in the final year. Nearly a year before that contract expired, they ratified an unprecedented six-year contract agreement, the longest contract ever for a symphony orchestra. Not only did it raise the musicians’ base salaries above $100,000 for the first time in the industry, it also guaranteed labor peace for six years.[14]

Until the economic recession in late 2007, American orchestras enjoyed stability. Musicians’ salaries and benefits were good, and most of the major orchestras had fifty-two-week seasons. Ever since, most have been in financial jeopardy. From small-budget local ensembles to top-ten outfits, each organization has had to deal with cancellations, reductions, freezes, etc., in order to survive a climate of greatly reduced financial support.[15]

While the New York Philharmonic has not had a work stoppage since 1973, relations between the musicians and the Society have been seriously tested. During the negotiation process in December 2011, the Society sent out a letter to each musician stating that an “unrestricted” portion of the Society’s endowment, which historically had been used to cover budget deficits and pension shortfalls, had declined “from $75 million in 2008 to $7 million in 2011” because the Society tapped into the endowment excessively, and because a new state law imposed restrictions that made it more difficult to use more. The letter’s purpose, ostensibly, was to persuade the musicians to agree to the Society’s proposals: abandonment of the defined-benefit pension plan; a wage freeze for two seasons; a change in the health insurance plan; and changes in working conditions and the media agreement. It only served to antagonize. The musicians immediately suspected that management was trying to circumvent the elected committee, the union, and the orchestra’s lawyer. Newton Mansfield, who had been in the orchestra for more than fifty-one years at the time, and served on many committees, wrote, “The last time I received such a disturbing piece of news was in 1973 when we received a letter from Aymas Ames, which became the opening gun for the 1973 strike.”[16]

In response, the orchestra musicians voted unanimously to strike, despite an upcoming European tour. Unlike 1973, however, both parties had a sincere desire to reach agreement, and did so just in time.

Nevertheless, there is a gathering storm on the horizon for American symphony orchestras. Iván Fischer, the prominent Hungarian conductor and founder of the Budapest Festival Orchestra, predicted in a recent interview with the London Times that symphony orchestras "in their present form have only a few more decades left at most. Their financing is already a vulnerability. Will American-style civic pride or the goodwill of European politicians really be enough to feed these large beasts that are basically the same now as they were a century ago? And is that rigid formation really appropriate for today, or are we simply stuck with it? I think we are stuck with it. I would welcome a more flexible musical family that could adapt its size and resources to what different composers and audiences required. In Budapest we have a pool of musicians doing a variety of activities. Those orchestras that are flexible will survive; the rigid ones won’t. The same thing happened to dinosaurs, I think."[17]

This is perhaps worst-case scenario. But there is not one institution that does not fear Fischer’s prediction will come to pass. While most orchestral musicians would undoubtedly prefer to focus upon the classical canon, they have been playing more “pop” concerts than ever to attract a younger and more diverse audience.

As for the Philharmonic, it continues to be one of the busiest and hardest-working orchestras in the world, but its musicians’ salaries and benefits have fallen behind orchestras whose seasons and repertoire are not their equal. Given the Society’s continual claim that the orchestras' pension plan is putting them in financial jeopardy, and the unsuccessful attempt to change that plan in 2011, labor relations promise only to get more difficult in the future.


Kuan Cheng Lu is a violinist with the New York Philharmonic, the first Taiwanese classical musician to earn a seat in the organization's 170-year history. He began in the 2004–05 season. Mr. Lu has received numerous awards and scholarships, and recently earned a Doctorate of Musical Arts from The Graduate Center.


Notes

[1] Flyer Distributed by Picketers, 26 September 1973, Orin O’Brien personal collection.

[2] Orin O’Brien, interviewed by Kuan Cheng Lu, April 2014.

[3] “Inflated Expectations,” New York Times, 28 September 1973, 32.

[4] Flyer Distributed by Picketers, Orin O’Brien personal collection.

[5] Minutes of the State Mediation meeting, 27 September 1973, New York Philharmonic Archives,
Orchestra Committee Files, box 912-01.

[6] Letter of the management to subscribers, 2 October 1973, New York Philharmonic Archives, Orchestra
Committee Files, box 912-01.

[7] Minutes of the Negotiations meeting at Sipser’s office, 2 November 1973, New York Philharmonic
Archives, Orchestra Committee Files, box 912-01.

[8] Open letter of the 106 musicians of the New York Philharmonic to Amyas Ames, 10 November 1973,
New York Philharmonic Archives, Orchestra Committee Files, box 912-01.

[9] James Brady, “Philharmonic: Cavils & Travels,” New York Intelligencer, 26 November 1973, 75.

[10] Gabriel Banat, “Memoirs”, unpublished manuscript, 5 July 2014.

[11] Newton Mansfield, interviewed by Kuan Cheng Lu, April 7, 2012.

[12] Donal Henahan, “Philharmonic Ready for the Downbeat,” New York Times, 29 November 1973, 54.

[13] Harold C. Schonberg, “How the Philharmonic Survived the Flood,” New York Times, 19 May 1973.

[14] “Orchestra Pact Accepted,” New York Times, 13 December 1997, B8.

[15] See, e.g., Daniel J. Wakin, “Strike at Cleveland Orchestra Points to Classical Music Woes,” New York Times, January 19, 2010, A1; Tim Smith, “Musicians accept pay cut to help struggling BSO,” The Baltimore Sun, 25 March 2010; Peter Dobrin, “Philadelphia Orchestra and its musicians agree to labor concessions,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, October 14, 2011; Melinda Johnson, “Syracuse Symphony Orchestra will file for bankruptcy, board announces,”; “NM Symphony Orchestra Files Bankruptcy,” KOAT Albuquerque, 20 April 2011; Andrew Druckenbrod, “Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra musicians get 3-year contract,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 13, 2011.

[16] Email, Newton Mansfield to the Orchestra and Management, 6 December 2011.

[17] Richard Morrison, “Iván Fischer: Symphony orchestras have only a few decades left,”London Times, August 13, 2014.