Open letter to the members of the Board of Directors of the Richmond Symphony
Dear Members of the Board:
First we must acknowledge the time and resources that you and all RSO supporters provide.
Without such support the RSO would not exist. Thank you.
We write to you today to share our concerns for the future of the RSO, and to relay our experiences
and impressions formed during the most recent negotiations. We believe that the RSO is at a
critical juncture and we fear that our great orchestra is in jeopardy. The purpose of this letter is to
address where we are, how we got to this point, and how we hope to move forward.
As you know, despite meetings between representatives of RSO musicians and RSO management
since January 2012, there is no agreement on a contract. Musicians rejected management’s final
offer, and management subsequently implemented that offer unilaterally. To this point, RSO
musicians continue to perform because we deeply believe that Richmond needs and deserves a
first class symphony. We do not feel that the crux of the problem is a labor dispute, but rather a
disagreement about management style, the organization’s mission, and a major lack of operating
The primary mission of an orchestra is to perform. We believe the RSO is being led to a mission of
education over performance. While it is important that we promote culture in schools and non-
traditional venues, performances outside of our hall must entertain, influence, and educate with the
ultimate goal of bringing as many of the people we encounter to a concert in our symphony hall.
The shift away from a focus on performance is visible in other ways as well. In January 2012, we
appealed to you not to cut subscription concerts, especially the Masterworks series. We still believe
it must be a priority to restore these performances. RSO must present programs of interest to
maintain current ticket buyers and attract new audiences. Of course, we do not naively believe that
tickets sell themselves, but RSO management has yet to successfully improve its marketing strategy,
including the use of social media, to analyze and connect with a broader community that, according
to musicians and management, largely do not know that the RSO exists.
At a time when the current per-capita income in Richmond is $40,872, full time musicians are being
forced to take an annual wage cut from $32,785 to $28,886. Per-service musicians are being forced
to take a 7% cut in wages and a 7% cut in services. Additional cuts include instrument insurance,
health insurance, leave and the elimination of travel expenses and disability. RSO musicians,
simply put, cannot afford these cuts. To attract a musician to the RSO in the future will be
difficult. Tuition costs at a four-year conservatory of music and the purchase of an instrument
for a prospective musician can easily exceed $250,000. This debt is ten times the annual wage a
musician could expect to receive accepting a job at the RSO.
While management portrays musicians as intransigent and unreasonable, past negotiations show
the opposite to be the case. During the past ten years musicians have agreed to wage freezes and
salary cuts five times. In August 2009, the musicians were asked to re-open the contract. We agreed
to defer a contractually promised 5% wage increase, accept a wage freeze, and extend the contract
to a fourth year. In July 2010, the musicians were again requested to re-open the agreement
and accept a wage reduction. Both requests came at a time when most musicians and their
representatives were away from Richmond. Though this serious financial matter should have been
addressed before the end of the season and fiscal year, RSO musicians acquiesced to management
Upon professional review by an independent accountant, the musicians were advised that the
organization was experiencing several financial challenges. Of concern was a recurring annual
deficit, a large balance on the line of credit, and an opinion that fund raising to the endowment was
occurring at the expense of revenue. RSO management advised us that donations to the endowment
were unlikely to be given to the operating fund, and the increased endowment gifts were necessary
to bridge the gap of income lost with the expiration of the Mellon Foundation initiative. Contrary to
their condition of acceptance, the Mellon funds had been used for general operations.
We encouraged the development of a plan to reduce/eliminate the debt on the line of credit.
Instead, the debt ceiling was increased to $1.5 million. During these discussions RSO management
unilaterally refused to pay the musicians their contractually mandated wage increase. This move
was met by a filing of an Unfair Labor Practice with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
Region 5 of the NLRB issued a complaint against the RSO, finding merit in the musicians' allegation
that the RSO management’s admitted failure to comply with the contract constituted a violation of
The musicians, willing to resolve the matter and not wage a public campaign, agreed to defer
half of their raise for the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons until August 31, 2012, the last day of the
agreement. The musicians also agreed to withdraw the charge with the NLRB. Again the RSO would
not agree to, nor did they offer, a workable plan to resolve the adverse financial position.
Unfortunately this settlement agreement was reneged upon when the RSO, during this current
round of bargaining, proposed its elimination. The deferred wages were eliminated as a result of
the current implementation. The musicians began the 2012-13 season in good faith, agreeing to
suspend the 5% wage settlement owed to them and freeze their wages. The RSO claimed it would
run out of operating money and insisted that cuts were necessary and immediate, and upon the
musicians’ rejection, implemented their final offer on October 1, 2012.
For the current round of bargaining, which began in January 2012, RSO proposed further
reductions in wages, benefits, and season length, amounting to approximately $150,000. Added
to this amount were the conversion of the musicians pension plan from an industry “defined
benefit” plan to a 403B with a twelve percent reduction in contribution, the elimination of parking
reimbursement, and the employers demand of the musicians to waive their lawful right to collect
unemployment when not employed. David Fisk announced at the end of the first meeting that
he was working with the Virginia State Legislature to pass a bill to make musicians ineligible for
unemployment. This action, and Mr. Fisk’s comments during legislative debate on this bill, raised
questions to the public about the musicians’ honesty and integrity, and opened a very deep wound.
Eventually it was determined that the RSO could not withdraw from the musicians pension fund
without substantial financial penalty; the Virginia legislature determined that enacting such
change would have an adverse effect on the State of Virginia’s entire unemployment insurance
program and voted to table the bill indefinitely. This effort was an embarrassment to the RSO. At
the conclusion of the first bargaining session, Mr. Fisk displayed the latest book written by Robert
Flanagan. Flanagan has had little real life experience with symphony orchestras, yet he is promoted
as an expert in understanding how they work. Mr. Fisk’s declaration that this book described how
an orchestra must be run adversely affected the musicians’ confidence in the future of the RSO and
the outcome of negotiations.
With cuts in pension and unemployment off the table, additional cuts in wages and benefits were
proposed. The cuts in wages and benefits totaled $250,000. During a meeting in May, cuts to wages
and benefits were increased to $335,752, adding a pro-rated share of the deficit from the 2011-
The musicians have, on multiple occasions, responded to the request for cuts. There is no question
that a funder’s first reaction to requests for support with an organization experiencing financial
duress is to “come back when you get your house in order”; thus advising cuts. We cannot afford
additional cuts. The solution must be an increase in revenue. During difficult economic times,
the RSO was successful in exceeding the goal for endowment donations, and in a shorter time
than projected. The biggest stumbling block currently is the lack of a clear plan that all parties
can support which ensures success for the future of the RSO. This plan must include financing
the debt, along with a combination of tools to raise new revenue to pay debt service and cover
operating expenses. A second tier in the plan must be developed to bolster the endowment, to
replace or augment intermediate (operating) gifts when they expire, and to assist the revenue side
as expenses increase through normal inflation. In addition, a fund to be used for adventuresome
programming must be formed.
The City of Richmond and individuals have invested millions of dollars to renovate the cultural
district and its surrounding area. This is an opportunity for the RSO, not a time for cuts without a
serious plan. Richmond needs a world class orchestra. We look forward to a dialogue with you, the
members of the Board of Directors, our funders, and our community. We must also begin to open
our doors wider to the community and make sure that the citizens of Richmond feel welcome to our
Thank you for your help and generosity.
The Musicians of the RSO