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Canton Symphony Orchestra musicians vote to authorize strike

close up of cellos
The 70-plus musicians with the Canton Symphony Orchestra are members of the American Federation of Musicians, Local 111, and have authorized a strike if they can't agree on a contract with CSO management. They've been playing without a contract since August.

Musicians with the Canton Symphony Orchestra, still reeling from the loss of their longtime maestro, have voted to authorize a strike. The union representing more than 70 players in Canton is still negotiating with the orchestra through a federal mediator.

Violist Laura Kuennen-Poper has been with the CSO for 18 years and is also a member of the committee representing musicians. She said there has been small progress on things like dress codes and forming an audition committee. Yet the response to requests for a cost-of-living increase have been “kind of laughable.”

“We think that part of our being far apart is that there is more data that could be shared,” she said. “Every proposal that the musicians have made has been data-based. When we have asked for data, we haven’t been given the data that would support their responses. And this is one of the reasons why these negotiations have been so frustrating.”

Kuennen-Poper said they’ve been negotiating for six months and without a contract since August.

“We are looking for substantive musician input in artistic decision-making within the organization,” she said. “Perhaps most importantly, we're seeking to ensure that in the future any contract extensions or new hires of music directors or assistant conductors be made with the approval of the musicians of the orchestra.”

The move comes just five months after CSO Music Director Gerhardt Zimmermann passed away. He was at the helm for 43 years – half of the orchestra’s existence – and guided the construction of expanded administrative offices, the Zimmermann Symphony Center, in 2014.

A previous version of this story erroneously stated that CSO administration had not yet responded to a call for comment.

Rachel Hagemeier, orchestra president and CEO, said in an interview Thursday that the negotiations have included discussion about increasing musician involvement “in ways that we can match some of our peer orchestras when it comes to auditions and in different areas like that.”

She said progress has been made in areas such as cartage and mileage, especially for musicians who might be transporting large instruments such as a harp. At the same time, she said the CSO is bracing for a decrease in funding from ArtsinStark.

“We used to get about $360,000 from ArtsinStark… around 30% of the budget,” she said. “We’re looking at getting a max of 4% of our budget now. So, 30% to 4% is quite a big difference.”

The musicians have also requested more detailed financial data from the orchestra. Hagemeier said they have been “very transparent” with information such as 990 statements, public records and musician compensation forms.

“We calculated how much musicians have been paid over the past six years to show kind of how that compares to the rest of the budget,” she said.

Hagemeier said she is hopeful an agreement will be reached quickly on "both economic and non-economic issues.” The previous contract was negotiated in 2018, a year before she came to Canton and four years before she took the helm.

The following statement was provided on Wednesday by Rachel Hagemeier, orchestra president & CEO:

The Canton Symphony Orchestra (CSO) Management (Canton, OH) is aware of the Local 111’s vote for a strike authorization at this time. While this vote passed, it is not a vote to strike and the CSO is hopeful that an agreement can be reached. The CSO Management will continue to negotiate in good faith and is continuing to engage in discussion, move on both economic and non-economic issues and work towards a Collective Bargaining Agreement.

The CSO has been prepared to negotiate since January of 2023. In April, the Union presented a proposal that contained an excess of 80 proposals. This was unprecedented in CSO negotiations and the CSO Management sought the assistance of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. Despite slow progress, the CSO has proposed competitive increases to compensations such as pay rate, ensemble rate, cartage and mileage. The CSO has also made significant moves on key non-economic requests which would allow musicians more of a voice in artistic choices made at the organization.

The CSO will continue to come to the table in good faith and work diligently to create a Collective Bargaining Agreement that is reflective of the needs of the musicians and the organization. The Canton Symphony Orchestra prides itself on creating the highest quality content for our community and we will continue to strive to do that through this negotiation process.

The musicians’ posted this statement below on social media:

The Musicians of the Canton Symphony Orchestra (Canton, OH), members of the American Federation of Musicians, Local 111 have overwhelmingly authorized a strike. The authorization allows the Union to declare a strike should it deem necessary, although the musicians’ Orchestra Committee will continue to negotiate with the Canton Symphony Orchestra Association (CSOA), using the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.

The musicians seek wages that mitigate record inflation since 2021, as well as basic job security and working conditions aligned with most professional orchestras in the country. The CSOA has rebuffed industry-standard proposals for mileage, minimum guarantees, and proposals correcting long-standing issues of respect and musician participation in the organization’s future, while refusing to share its audited financial statements.

Benjamin Reidhead, a member of the CSO’s Orchestra Committee and horn section, said, “We have taken the step of getting a strike authorization from our membership because the lack of movement from the CSOA on these issues jeopardizes our ability to maintain the quality of the orchestra.  We don’t understand the resistance to updating our working conditions to those enjoyed by modern American orchestras nor the CSOA’s current refusal to offer a bare-bones cost-of-living wage increase.”

Gerhardt Zimmerman, the CSO’s late Music Director, wrote his final public statement to the CSO musicians: “Throughout the past half-century, it has been an absolute privilege and honor to stand before this exceptional group of musicians as your conductor. Together, we have created unforgettable experiences for ourselves and our audiences. The dedication, talent, and passion that each of you brings to our performances have made the Canton Symphony Orchestra a beacon of excellence in the world of classical music.… Your dedication, talent, and commitment have made the Canton Symphony Orchestra an artistic force to be reckoned with, and I have the utmost faith in your ability to carry that torch forward.”

The musicians of the CSO draw inspiration from these words and will continue to dedicate themselves to the preservation and growth of Canton’s “beacon of excellence” and call on the Board and Management to do the same.

Updated: November 9, 2023 at 4:27 PM EST
This story was updated after an interview with Rachel Hagemeier, orchestra president and CEO.
Corrected: November 8, 2023 at 8:40 PM EST
A previous version of this story erroneously stated that CSO administration had not yet responded to a call for comment. Their statement has been added.
Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.