Photo courtesy of Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra
Photo courtesy of Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra |

Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra reaches tentative agreement with musicians

As symphony orchestras nationwide struggle to engaging modern audiences, the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra on Tuesday reached a tentative collective bargaining agreement with its musicians. The agreement still needs to be ratified and approved by the symphony and the Kalamazoo Federation of Musicians – Local 228, before it is finalized.

“We’re hoping to be able to present a new collective bargaining agreement to the musicians for ratification by the end of the month,” Elizabeth Start, secretary of the Kalamazoo Federation of Musicians, said.

The tentative agreement comes during a challenging time for such orchestras, with musicians elsewhere making contract concessions to stay in operation. For example, musicians in the Hartford Symphony Orchestra in Connecticut agreed to pay and benefit cuts earlier this year to meet budget constraints and keep the orchestra performing. 
Symphony orchestras generally negotiate new contracts with musicians every few years. For example, the Grand Rapids Symphony and the Grand Rapids Federation of Musicians approved a five-year collective bargaining agreement in April. The Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra has been operating on an old agreement that expired in 2014.

Peter Gistelinck, president and CEO of the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra, said that negotiations usually start six months to a year before a contract is set to expire, but that changes in leadership made that challenging.

“They were having an interim executive director prior to me, and that wasn’t a good way to start negotiations,” Gistelinck said.

The negotiations took place amidst some controversy. In May, the musicians filed an Unfair Labor Practice (UPL) charge against the symphony after the symphony changed the rehearsal schedule for its symphonic series.

Gistelinck said that the symphony did nothing wrong when it asked musicians to attend two rehearsals a day in the days leading up to a symphonic concert.
“The management rights clause contains a paragraph that says an employer has the exclusive right to determine places and times of rehearsals and concerts,” Gistelinck said. “As long as the determination is not in violation of the agreement.”
The agreement stipulates that the symphony can require up to two services, that is performances or rehearsals, per day and up to eight services per week.
Start said that only eight of the symphony’s musicians are full-time employees. The others work part time and have other jobs. The two rehearsals-a-day policy, which required afternoon rehearsals, would make it difficult or impossible for musicians to maintain both their day job and their symphony work.
Gistelinck said that the labor dispute is really a separate matter from the collective bargaining agreement. However, the symphony has committed to maintaining the old one rehearsal per evening schedule.
 “The fact that we have the schedule rescinded means that we will be able to perform,” Start said. “The musicians love our supporters, we love to play for them, and we hope that we will be able to focus on that, not on matters like this in the future.”
Gistelinck also wants to focus on the music. He said that is part of why the agreement took so long to reach.
“The agreement in place was a very old agreement that was extended.” Gistelinck said. “We had basically ended up with a contract that was becoming irrelevant to the organization because it was so old. We agreed, let’s do a thorough job this time and go through article by article to come up with a document that really makes sense."
On the performance side, Gistelinck said the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra is actually doing very well.
“Our audience is growing and people are very excited with what's happening with the Kalamazoo City Orchestra because we really have broadened our program in order to reach out to as many people as we can,” Gistelinck said.