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Five Year Contract Reached in Grand Rapids


05 April 2016


After twelve months of intense bargaining, the musicians of the Grand Rapids Symphony, as members of American Federation of Musicians (AFM) Local 56 Grand Rapids, and the Grand Rapids Symphony Society have agreed upon a five year contract.


Tentative agreement was reached on March 22, 2016, followed by positive ratification votes from the musicians and the Grand Rapids Symphony (GRS) Board of Directors. This contract will expire August 31, 2020.


While most of the non-financial issues were resolved through bargaining sessions during the summer of 2015, both sides were far apart on the financial front.


Initially facing six weeks of lost wages, holding 13 positions in the orchestra unfilled, and having no restoration of their suspended 401(k) benefit, the negotiation team had a far way to go in order to reach an agreement that would satisfy the musicians who were still smarting from the cutbacks they endured in 2009.


“This negotiation did not fully restore items the musicians lost in 2009, such as the suspended retirement benefit amount and two less weeks of work and pay,” said Paul Austin, co-chair of the musicians’ negotiation committee and a member of the GRS horn section. “However, the musicians were encouraged to see a plan to grow the orchestra over time, not only by filling the full-time positions that are currently open and converting some per-service contracts to full-time positions, but the partial return of some lost benefits.”


The final settlement maintains a 40 week season, has the return of a 401(k) contribution, and establishes a seniority pay system.


Austin further relayed that “the musicians were mindful of an industry standard since becoming members of ICSOM (International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians) in 2013. Having comparable benefits, such as a 401(k) contribution and a system for seniority pay, will keep the GRS competitive with peer orchestras and attract top talent to join our symphony."


ICSOM Chairperson Bruce Ridge commented that “the Grand Rapids Symphony is widely recognized among the very best in America. This new contract, so amicably settled, will serve to ensure the continued growth of the orchestra, expanding both its community service and its donor base.”


Diane McElfish Helle, violinist and negotiation committee co-chair, noted that the long negotiation gave the board time to work on developing a new strategic plan. “This was not a situation where the only important activity was at the negotiation table. There was deep thinking and important conversation going on at all levels of the organization, including among audience members and board members. I think everyone realizes that this is a critical moment in the history of the Grand Rapids Symphony. The musicians are pleased that the Symphony Society has committed to growth and to continuing the work of building the great orchestra that this city deserves.”


In addition to Austin and Helle, the other members of the negotiation committee are to be thanked and congratulated for their tireless and dedicated work since September 2014. Those musicians include Beth Colpean, Barbara Corbato, Jeremy Crosmer, Christopher Martin, and Leslie Van Becker.


AFM Local 56 President Eric Vander Stel and Secretary/Treasurer Gary Sironen are to be recognized for all they have done during the longest negotiation in the history of the Grand Rapids Local. They gave their support to the negotiation committee along every step of the way, including the Local’s funding of the public relations campaign led by Randy Whatley, President of Cypress Media.


Whatley states that “while the negotiation committee labored tirelessly for a year, the orchestra worked to mobilize the Grand Rapids community and Grand Rapids Symphony board members to support the musicians. There was much disagreement between the parties at the table but the public relations campaign never became offensive to either management, the board, or Grand Rapids citizens. Consequently, everyone who loves the Grand Rapids Symphony should now be able to work harmoniously together for the greater benefit of the organization. The musicians’ public relations efforts strengthened relationships with music lovers from all walks of life throughout west Michigan. The Grand Rapids Symphony will now be the beneficiary of those efforts.”


The venerable negotiator from the AFM Symphonic Services Division Nathan Kahn played an instrumental part in the bargaining process. Now in his fourth time to work in Grand Rapids for contract negotiations, Kahn is fully aware of the dynamics of the community and the potential for the organization. "While this contract did not fully restore the concessions the musicians were forced to concede over the past seven years, it does provide a roadmap for future growth to ultimately provide a thriving west Michigan with the kind of orchestra they want and deserve,” said Kahn. “My sincere thanks to the negotiation committee, their most supportive Union, and the GRS Board of Directors for conducting a most intelligent and thoughtful negotiation, leading us to this successful conclusion."


The musicians of the Grand Rapids Symphony wish to thank our many supporters who wrote beautiful letters and came to concerts and kept yard signs in their front lawns (through the many changing seasons of west Michigan). We thank the community for caring about the musicians of the symphony as well as the institution. In addition, we thank the board members, current and past, for sharing their time, energy, and creativity as they searched for and found a way to move forward.


For more information contact:

Paul Austin                                                     Diane McElfish Helle                      

(616) 304-0869                                               (616) 458-8706

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