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Columbus Symphony not alone in plight; Jacksonville orchestra suffered lock-outs

After months of getting nowhere in negotiations with the Columbus Symphony board, the musicians are looking for support from local government to keep the orchestra alive. The musicians have asked Governor Strickland, Mayor Coleman and Columbus City Council to support non-binding mediation to help reach an agreement. Other orchestras have faced similar financial problems. The Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra in Florida recently overcame its own labor battle.

"The musicians were actually locked out. They didn't go on strike."

That's what Timothy Gibbons said happened one afternoon in November when Jacksonville Symphony players arrived for practice. Gibbons, a reporter for the "Florida Times-Union", covered the symphony's labor dispute.

"They're going along, going to practices, playing and everything and they basically showed up one day and were told OK no more performances," he said.

The lock-out didn't happen over night. The musicians' five-year contract was up in August 2007. So from August until the lock-out in November musicians and the board were in negotiations.

Gibbons said the symphony's $8 million budget was $3 million in the hole.

"The board told executives, OK, that's enough you have to cut expenses. And obviously the main expense for a symphony is the musicians. So cutting expenses was cutting their salaries," Gibbons said.

The musicians were not keen on pay cuts, and the board wouldn't budge.

"The musicians saying we're not going to take, we're not going to take pay cuts. On the other side management was very firm on we're going to cut expenses and that's the way to do it," Gibbons recalled.

The musicians were out of work for ten weeks - all of the holiday season. The annual Nutcracker Ballet went on, but with recorded music.

The symphony resumed concerts in mid-January after a 10 week lock-out. The musicians took a salary freeze for three years, after which time Gibbons said they'll start receiving small raises. But it was not just the salary freezes that helped save the orchestra.

A group of symphony-goers came together to form the organization, Friends of the Jacksonville Symphony. Earl Barker is a member of Friends.

"There were a number of us who thought, or were sensing, that there was a real threat to the continuation of the symphony has it has existed and we were not willing to let that happen," Barker said.

Gibbons said another part of the dispute was cutting the season by two weeks. So the Friends group, as they're often called, offered to fund-raise and pay for the musicians' salaries for those two weeks for five years.

Barker said the Friends group will pay $100,000 for the symphony's encore week. It also will come up with $100,000 in grants for a week where a symphony ensemble plays at local schools. So over the next five years Friends of the Jacksonville Symphony will have to raise $500,000 in cash.

Barker was asked: what if Friends can not come up with all the money?

"The musicians, in that situation, which is going to happen this year, where we are paying half, then the musicians donate services for the other half and get paid out of the profits," he answered.

Barker said he does not expect to have a problem raising the money. He said the group has only been fund-raising since mid-February and has raised $50,000 for the orchestra's encore week. While he said the JSO said it tapped all its fund-raising resources, he said the Friends group is reaching out to new possibilities.

"We think there are additional funds available. We know they are available because they've funded us," Barker said.

Barker said the symphony's board, in his words, "reluctantly," accepted the Friends idea to raise money for the musicians' salaries. But he said they were receptive enough to finally come to a new contract agreement.

Gibbons said after the dispute was resolved the symphony brought in consultants to work on communication issues, and there's also a new executive director.

To function well a symphony does need some kind of cooperation between management and labor. A lot of that rift has been healed. I mean obviously it's a lot easier to be fairly ticked of when you're out of work," Gibbons said.

The Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra declined an interview about the lock-out saying, "Indeed there has been a settlement following a difficult labor dispute, but we feel it is best to focus on the challenges that lie ahead."

Friends of Jacksonville Symphony's Earl Barker said it saddens him to hear about Columbus' symphony plight.

"I have the sense from what I read that your community, like ours, has enjoyed having a very fine symphony for a lot of years. I certainly would encourage the community to get together and say, no, we are going to have the symphony then do what's necessary to have it happen. It would be a real tragedy for a place like Columbus, to have, to have the music go silent," he said.