Philly Orchestra, musicians seek new mediation

Posted: September 09, 2011

Labor and management of the Philadelphia Orchestra have asked for contract talks in a new venue: mediation under the jurisdiction of U.S. Bankruptcy Court.

On Wednesday, the Philadelphia Orchestra Association and Local 77 of the American Federation of Musicians asked Judge Eric Frank to assign a bankruptcy judge to oversee talks. Frank entered an order Thursday for Stephen Raslavich, chief judge of U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania, to lead mediation next week on Thursday, next Friday, and, if needed, Sept. 16.

Previous mediation with the director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, George Cohen, failed to produce an agreement. Management wants to leave the union's national pension fund; the union has fought to keep the Philadelphia players in the fund. But there is reason to think dynamics of the new mediation will be different, said Lawrence G. McMichael, the association's bankruptcy attorney.

"A bankruptcy judge has more persuasive influence. It carries more weight than mediation," he said. If one side expressed a position in mediation, "the judge can look up and say, 'You will lose. If I had that in my court, this is how I would rule.' A bankruptcy judge can settle things that other people can't."

John Koen, chairman of the members' committee, said management had offered to replace the current plan with 403(b) accounts into which the association would pay 8 percent of the base minimum salary. That would "make it essential for people to play much later into their careers. For some players it would mean a retirement age of 69" at 32 percent of salary.

An association spokeswoman declined to comment on "specifics of our negotiations with our colleagues of the orchestra as our conversations are ongoing."

Koen said there was no reason to expect a compromise in mediation under Raslavich that wasn't available in talks with Cohen. "We must preserve the orchestra as we would recognize it and not destroy it, which this proposal would do. There's too much competition" for players' services. "People have options."

Several musicians have departed, though it is not clear that all their decisions were related to the orchestra's April 16 bankruptcy petition and a set of proposed deep concessions by players.

As part of the deal for new mediation, both sides agreed that the association would not seek to abrogate the musicians' current contract before mediation ends or Sept. 19, whichever is later.

Imposing a new contract takes weeks to complete, even if the association were to make such a request of the judge. Also, the union agreed not to file any more charges of unfair labor practices with the National Labor Relations Board. Finally, the current contract was extended from Nov. 18 to 11:59 p.m. Dec. 2.


Contact music critic Peter Dobrin at pdobrin@phillynews.com or 215-854-5611.

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