Work stoppages in the symphony orchestra world usually come with a fair amount of PR “spin” as each side tries to make its case to donors, patrons, and the public that the other side is being unreasonable. The Fort Wayne Philharmonic strike, now headed to its fourth day, is no exception. The musicians rightly point out that the salary they’ve been working under – $22,000 is the base annual salary for a full-time section musician – is woefully inadequate. No one can live on that, and this isn’t a part-time gig. Most of the musicians moved to Fort Wayne after winning a nationwide audition for a job in the Philharmonic; and while some musicians can supplement their income though teaching and driving several hours to sub in other orchestras, there is no question that a position in the Fort Wayne Philharmonic is meant to be a full-time symphony orchestra job.
Neither party is publicly revealing many details about the proposals currently on the table, and I am not involved in the negotiation. But management has not hesitated to characterize the musicians’ position as unreasonable: management claims that the musicians are asking for “a 46% raise.” (That assertion was, sadly, repeated verbatim without analysis or investigation on a blog post on Slipped Disc.) For their part, the musicians are neither confirming nor denying that they are seeking that specific percentage increase; but they maintain that what they’re looking for is a return to pre-COVID salary levels, plus a “cost of living” increase.
With respect to this particular attempt at spin, then, there are two issues. One is a matter of perspective, and the other issue is a matter of math. The perspective question is whether an increase to a salary that was recently cut is truly a “raise.” In their last full season before the pandemic, 2018-19, base salary for a full-time musician was $26,000. Salary was dramatically cut during the height of the pandemic shutdowns, but it partially recovered to $22,000 for the 2021-22 season. So, under management’s approach, simply restoring the salary from four years ago would be an “18% raise.” From the musicians’ point of view, however, mere restoration to $26,000 would actually represent a cut in real dollars, given the increase in the cost of living over the past four years.
The musicians have the better view. If a worker is paid $40 and hour and is forced to take a temporary pay cut to $30 an hour in a crisis, they are not demanding a “33% increase” when they ask for their pay to be restored. Restoration would be a pay freeze on its face; and in inflationary times, it’s a pay cut. And with respect to the Fort Wayne musicians, there is no question that an annual salary of $22,000, or $26,000, or even the $32,000 that would result from a 46% raise, is not a livable salary.
But let’s do the math. According to the CPI-U figures from bls.gov for the Midwest region, the CPI index for October 2022 – the most recent available – was 276.908. In October 2018, the equivalent annual point in 2018-19, it was 235.680. That’s a 17.5% increase over those four years. Applying that increase to the 2018-19 base salary of $26,000 would result in $30,550. That is already close to the $32,000 that management bemoaningly asserts the musicians are seeking – and given that inflation is still increasing month-to-month, $32,000 is virtually certain to be a true “cost of living” increase in just a few months.
In bargaining, of course, just because a proposal is reasonable and supported by data doesn’t necessarily mean that is where you end up. In the orchestra world, management’s willingness to agree to salary increases depends on a whole host of factors – anticipated revenue from ticket sales, contributions, and endowment income, to name a few. I am not privy to those kinds of details for Fort Wayne, so I cannot comment on what management can afford to pay. I will note, however, that according to IRS 990 forms, the net assets of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic, which generally reflect the size of its endowment, increased from $18 million at the beginning of FY18 to $31.1 million at the end of FY21 – a 73% increase. (FY22 results are not yet public.)
Some of that was the result of pandemic aid and a rising stock market, to be sure; but a 73% expansion in net assets, during a time when we experienced the greatest economic and societal disruption since the Great Depression, suggests that the wolf is not exactly prowling at the door. It also demonstrates that the Fort Wayne community clearly can support a full-time professional orchestra.
But you can’t maintain a truly professional orchestra without paying professional musicians a truly livable wage. Maybe the management of the Fort Wayne Philharmonic should direct its efforts towards finding a way to accomplish that, rather than engage in lame and misleading attempts at PR spin.