Unprecedented 5-year contract paves way to Grand Rapids Symphony's 90th anniversary in 2019-20

An unprecedented 5-year-collective bargaining agreement that’ll carry the Grand Rapids Symphony through the rest of the decade and through its 90th anniversary season has been ratified. 

The contract between the Grand Rapids Symphony Society and the musicians of the Grand Rapids Federation of Musicians includes pay raises of 1 to 3 percent over the next five years and partially restores employer contributions to the musicians’ retirement plan, which were suspended in 2009 at the height of the economic downturn. 

The Grand Rapids Symphony’s board of directors unanimously approved the contract on April 4. 

Having a five-year contract in place is good news for the entire community of Grand Rapids, said Kate Pew Wolters, chairperson of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s Board of Directors. 

“As a city consistently recognized nationally as one that is vibrant and growing, I count the Grand Rapids Symphony as one of our greatest cultural assets,” Wolters said. “The roles that our musicians play, not just on the stage, but as contributing members of our community can be seen in our schools, as tutors and as mentors.” 

“As we look forward to our 87th season, the board applauds the partnership that has led to this vision of growth and sustainability,” she said. 

The contract preserves the orchestra’s present 40-week season and makes no changes to the orchestra’s health insurance. 

Though the previous agreement expired at the end of August 2015, orchestra operations continued under its provisions while negotiations continued. Two more concerts in the Richard and Helen DeVos Classical Series and a salute to the movie music of John Williams on the Fox Motors Pops Series are yet to come in the 2015-16 season continuing through May. 

“The successful conclusion of our negotiations will help the symphony and its superb musicians continue to enrich our community at a high level of excellence, while supporting ongoing efforts to assure the orchestra's long-term strength and positive direction,” said Grand Rapids Symphony President Peter Kjome. 

A provision to provide seniority pay in recognition of years of service, which wasn’t part of the previous contract, will take effect in September. It provides for additional pay for all rehearsals and performances for musicians beginning with their sixth year of service and increasing every year afterward. 

This season, new fewer than eight Grand Rapids Symphony musicians are celebrating major anniversaries of 25 to 40 years in 2015-16. 

Employer contributions to the musicians’ 401(k) also will resume in September, beginning with a 2 percent contribution, rising to as much as 4 percent in the final year when matched with a 2 percent contribution from the players. 

Employer contributions to the 401(k) and seniority pay are commonly found among ensembles whose musicians are members of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians, which represents the Grand Rapids Symphony among 52 of the largest orchestras in the United States. 

"The musicians were mindful of an industry standard since becoming members of ICSOM in 2013,” said Paul Austin, a French hornist and co-chair of the negotiation committee for the Grand Rapids Federation of Musicians. “Having comparable benefits, such as the return of a 401(k) contribution and establishing a seniority pay system will keep the GRS competitive with peer orchestras and attract top talent to join the Grand Rapids Symphony." 

The Grand Rapids Symphony has 50 full-time, contracted positions with three positions currently held open, and about 30 part-time positions on its roster. The new agreement outlines efforts to raise additional funds to help add full-time musicians to the ensemble. It’s a development that violinist Diane Helle, co-chair of the negotiation committee, called “extraordinary and exciting.” 

“The musicians are pleased, after months of talks with the Grand Rapids Symphony Society, that our shared vision for the orchestra includes a commitment to increase the number of full-time musicians, continuing the exciting work of building the great orchestra that this community deserves,” Helle said. 

The new labor agreement smooths the way for the arrival of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s next music director. The search for a successor to David Lockington, who stepped down from his post in May 2015 to become music director laureate, is expected to culminate within the next couple of months. 

The eighth and final guest conductor of the season, Marcelo Lehninger, returns to DeVos Hall to lead the orchestra on April 22-23. The Brazilian-born conductor made his Grand Rapids Symphony debut last season. 

All eight of the guest conductors are possible candidates to become the 14th music director in Grand Rapids Symphony history. 

“The newly signed, five-year contract will go a long way to attract the best of the best,” added Mary Tuuk, a member of the GRS board of directors and co-chair of the search committee. “And it’ll pave the way for a new era of artistic excellence and community vibrancy.”

Posted by Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk at 7:00 AM

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