Furloughed ISO musicians say contract negotiations with orchestra officials are nonexistent

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Musicians from the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra say negotiations with the organization’s management are nonexistent, even though the current contract is set to expire in less than two months and another round of furloughs has begun.

The ISO initially announced in April that it had furloughed its musicians and stagehands and laid off about half of its staff to adjust to performance cancellations and financial hardships caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

All summer performances through Sept. 17, including the popular Symphony on the Prairie season at Conner Prairie, have been canceled.

Before the layoffs, the organization had 72 musicians and 54 full-time employees.

The musicians say they have not been included in any of the decision making to date.

“We’ve been kept out of the loop entirely,” said Brian Smith, orchestra committee chair for the Musicians of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.

James Johnson, CEO of the ISO, did not respond to IBJ’s requests for comment.

The ISO did receive funding through the federal Paycheck Protection Program, which it used to pay musicians 75% of their normal salaries for eight weeks. But that support ended June 7, and another round of furloughs started that day.

The latest round of furloughs also cut health insurance coverage, according to the musicians, and there is no timeline for when benefits may be restored or when musicians may be called back to work.

According to the musicians, the ISO is the only orchestra in the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians—which represents 52 of the world’s largest orchestras—to drop health insurance for musicians while on furlough.

“We lost health care in a global pandemic,” Smith said.

Musicians did receive a one-time stipend for health insurance, but the players say that only was enough to cover about two weeks of continued health coverage for the average family plan.

The musicians say they even had to fight for back pay for wages already owed from performances that occurred before the pandemic, which they say the ISO only agreed to after the musicians created more online content for the organization to use.

The ISO has an endowment worth about $97 million, according to the latest financial report shared in December, but musicians say management is unwilling to tap that fund to help pay for current financial shortfalls.

“We were told right away … that cannot be touched,” said Roger Roe, oboe assistant principal and English horn player.

The orchestra has had budget deficits for two years, and Johnson had previously told IBJ he hoped to change that in 2020.

Smith said the musicians aren’t making any specific demands—they just want to have discussions with the ISO about how the orchestra can move forward and adapt.

“We’re simply asking that we be part of the solution,” Smith said. “We want to move forward together as an organization, and right now it feels like we’re excluded from that conversation.”

The communication breakdown comes as time is running out for the ISO to renegotiate a long-term contract with the musicians. The current contract is set to expire Sept. 6, and the musicians say even before the pandemic hit in March, negotiations had not started—despite a desire on their part to start talking.

The current three-year agreement, reached in 2016, included the first salary increase since 2006. Deals reached in 2009 and 2012 contained pay cuts as ISO management handled its budget in the wake of the Great Recession.

“We’ve been trying to talk to them for months and months,” Roe said. “We would love to be planning next fall. … And since it’s already June, we feel like we need to be doing that together.”

The musicians say they understood why performances had to be canceled and respected the desire to keep players and patrons safe, but they believe leaders at the ISO and musicians need to be discussing what the next steps are.

“We want to play as soon as possible and as safely as possible,” Roe said.

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