Care about Fort Wayne arts and culture? Here’s what to know about the Philharmonic strike

By now, you’ve probably heard about weeks of strikes and negotiations between the Fort Wayne Philharmonic’s players union (Local 58, Fort Wayne Musicians Association) and its management/board of directors. But if you care about the future of Fort Wayne arts and culture, there are a few reasons this strike should be on your radar.

Let’s start with a quick catchup. 

For about 10 years, tensions have been brewing between the Fort Wayne Philharmonic’s players union and its board/management, primarily over wages and contract requirements. In recent years, the Phil has reduced its number of concerts—partly due to the pandemic. Even so, it has managed to raise and maintain an endowment unusually large for an orchestra and city Fort Wayne’s size—at about $28 million. Yet, its 44 full-time players have been receiving salaries between only $22,000 and $26,000 per year. 

In September, the musicians’ previous contract expired, and negotiations for a new contract began. Unable to reach a solution with management and the board, Philharmonic players went on strike in early December, largely to demand more liveable wages. ($31,600 is what’s considered “livable” in Indiana.) Since then, concerts and events have been canceled as the two sides undergo negotiations. 

During this time, the board and management have offered musicians wage increases, but only in exchange for cutting full-time players and/or changing player contracts. Both sides continue to meet, but haven’t reached an agreement as of Jan. 12.

So far: 
  • In December, the American Federation of Musicians placed the Fort Wayne Philharmonic on the organization’s “International Unfair List.”
  • On Jan. 5, management filed regressive bargaining against the players’ union with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging the union has “shown unwillingness to negotiate in good faith.”
  • On Jan. 7, the union filed an unfair labor practice charge on behalf of the musicians against Philharmonic management, alleging management unlawfully coerced individual employees by “interrogating them about their intention to engage in a strike” and refuses to bargain in good faith.
  • On Jan. 9-10, management made its “final offer” to musicians before canceling concerts through February. The offer met musicians’ wage requirements, increasing wages 45.8 percent. But the offer was still rejected by musicians due to its intent to reduce the orchestra's full-time members and to make allowances for “flexibility and innovation to be afforded to management in exchange for the wage increases.” Musicians feel the allowances go too far in reducing their workplace rights and changing the way the Philharmonic has functioned for more than 40 years.
Negotiations may be ongoing as we speak.

So why does this story matter?
  1. It questions the value of art in conservative, corporate systems.

Christopher Guerin, former President of the Phil from 1985-2005 who also serves on Fort Wayne’s Redevelopment Commission, has been one of the leading voices supporting the musicians. Under his tenure, the orchestra grew its number of full-time musicians from 18 to its current 44 and expanded its endowment from about $2 million to $10 million. Guerin

Guerin, who previously worked as a Vice President at Sweetwater Sound until his retirement in 2018, questions why an endowment largely raised with the ambition of building a world-class orchestra hasn’t been used to pay players a liveable wage.

“Their salary this year is basically slightly less than what it was in 2008,” he says. 

In a Dec. 13 column for the Journal Gazette, Guerin points out that the Phil has “more than $25 million in the bank against a budget of, at most, $6 million in operating expenses.” Previous reporting also shows members of the Philharmonic’s management, like former Managing Director James Palermo, were earning salaries far higher than the musicians at $185,000.

Philharmonic President and CEO Brittany Hall explains that while the Phil is “incredibly fortunate to have an endowment of its size,” about $8 million of its funds are reserved for restricted use, due to donor intent. She says the Phil’s board intends to conserve as much of the remaining $20 million as possible for the organization's future, according to nonprofit best practices.

“Best practices for nonprofits are to build and fiercely protect the endowment,” Hall says. “It’s a reliable annual source of income to help close financial gaps. Anybody who made a gift to the Philharmonic’s endowment believed that the endowment would support the orchestra into the future. That’s the standard definition of an endowment.”

But for players like Campbell MacDonald, Principal Clarinet of the Phil and Chairman of the players’ association, the conservation of funds—at the cost of musicians’ salaries and positions —is seen as out of step with donor intent.

“This is a corporate ideology that is being carried into a nonprofit organization, and it’s the community who suffers,” MacDonald says. “This suffering is taking the form of job loss, fewer concerts, and fewer people being reached by music.”

For some national context, Kevin Case, Founder and Principal of Case Arts Law, based in Chicago, weighs in. A former musician himself, he represents musicians and artists nationwide in labor and employment matters, and he’s been following the case in Fort Wayne. 

He notes that neither party has publicly revealed many details about its proposals throughout the strike, but the sheer size of the Phil’s endowment is something that makes this case extremely unique. While some orchestras have no endowment, and others aim to build an endowment maybe two or three times their operating budgets, the Phil’s endowment is about four or five times the size of its budget.

As such, while some orchestras are truly in dire financial circumstances and can’t afford to maintain their size or pay their musicians adequately, he doesn’t see the Fort Wayne Philharmonic in that category.

“The other category I see is groups that have more ideological problems,” he says. “That’s what I see, from an outsider’s perspective, in Fort Wayne. It’s an organization that isn’t in any financial trouble but seems determined to shrink the orchestra to something it can comfortably manage, and the first place they turn to do that is the musicians’ contracts.”
  1.  It draws attention to the fact that Fort Wayne’s orchestra is playing fewer concerts—and at risk of shrinking.

Two large points of contention for the musicians throughout the strike have been the fewer concerts they’re performing, and perhaps as a result, the higher number of players whose full-time positions are at stake. 

In his column, Guerin notes how the Philharmonic has reduced its number of annual concerts in recent years—and not just due to the pandemic, which has affected arts organizations across the country. He particularly calls attention to how the Phil has cut its chamber orchestra concerts, like its Unplugged Series, which utilize all of the orchestra’s 44 full-time players and tend to generate money for the organization by requiring minimal overhead expenses.

As a result of scheduling fewer concerts to utilize players, the board initially recommended reducing the orchestra’s full-time roster by three full-time players. 

Sara Manning, Project Manager for the Fort Wayne Philharmonic, explains: "It is important to understand that no current Fort Wayne Philharmonic player will lose his or her core position and that no changes in the number of core seats will be made until current seat holders leave or retire. As it stands in the best and final offer, upon retirement or departure of those holding these positions, three full-time, core orchestra seats will move to per-service status, and one per-service member seat will move to an extra. The seats that would move to per-service status are principal harp, third french horn and principal tuba."

Even so, musicians, like MacDonald, see any full-time reductions as costly and unnecessary losses to the orchestra.

“Imagine the notion of an organization that cuts concert output by 50 percent, and then claims musicians are not being utilized,” MacDonald says. “We’ve had these musicians serving Fort Wayne for years as full-time solo voices in the orchestra, and removing them as full-time positions is completely unnecessary.”

Guerin echos these sentiments, noting that cutting full-timers also means including more part-timers in the orchestra on a regular basis, which hurts its music quality and consistency.

“The reason you want 44 full-time players in an orchestra can be summed up in one word: Ensemble,” he says. “These musicians play together all the time. They learn to listen to each other and speak with a single voice. If you can do that, you significantly raise the quality of an orchestra. That was the goal all along: Raising the quality of the orchestra, and by getting rid of full-time players, you’re chipping away at that idea.”

Hall says the board is committed to growing the orchestra in the future.

“There is no move to shrink the orchestra,” she says. “The board and I are committed to maintaining and continuing to grow the orchestra in coming years.”

She says a previous contract had offered 28 weeks of work to the Philharmonic’s musicians, and the current, final offer has increased that to 30 weeks of work. 

Still, prior to the pandemic, the Philharmonic’s previous seasons were typically 33 weeks long—and as high as 40 weeks long prior to 2013.

Like McDonald and Guerin, Case sees reducing full-time musicians as a costly move on behalf of any orchestra.

“A lot of orchestra boards look at musicians who aren’t being used all the time, like the harp or the tuba, and say: Why are they full-time players?” he says. “I like to use the analogy of an NFL team. Your field goal kicker might only be on the field for 45 seconds, but when they make that kick, you want them to be reliable, so it’s worth having them on your team full-time.”
  1. It impacts regional talent attraction and retention—both directly and indirectly.

As someone who moved to Fort Wayne for his full-time position with the Philharmonic in 2004, MacDonald notes that many of the Phil’s players are young, creative transplants who have become committed residents of Fort Wayne over the years. Reducing full-time positions to part-time or per-service would, thus, reduce the need for players to relocate to Fort Wayne, hurting regional talent attraction and retention.

“It not only hurts the orchestra, but hurts regional talent attraction,” he says. “Reducing the orchestra’s size is a job-killing measure we find unacceptable.” 

Along with providing jobs to players themselves, the orchestra also provides creative outlets for the broader Fort Wayne community, trains next-generation talent, and contributes to economic development with regular concerts and events.

The sheer size of the orchestra’s endowment speaks to the fact that Fort Wayne has long prided itself in the quality of its Philharmonic. And the Phil plays an important role in Fort Wayne’s future.

In 2021, Greater Fort Wayne Inc. and its partner organizations released their countywide Allen County Together (ACT) economic development plan, which calls for making Fort Wayne and Allen County a Top 10 “Music City” in the U.S. In most major cities, a robust symphonic orchestra is key to the music scene’s vitality. Artists of many kinds may judge a city’s creative culture by its ability to sustain well-paid, full-time musicians, too. 

“If the ambition is to become a big Music City, then certainly the Fort Wayne Philharmonic is going about it the wrong way,” Case says. “You can’t have a bigger impact by shrinking yourself.”

As of the musician’s rejection of the Philharmonic’s most recent offer on Jan. 10, Guerin says one reason for the ongoing strike is that the Phil’s management seems to be insisting on an “over-interpretation” of the standard “management's rights clause,” which is only intended to be used when issues arise that are in no way covered by the contract. 

“In sum, this effort on the board’s side seems to be a power grab, to allow management to do anything and everything it wants without coming to some agreement with the musicians first,” Guerin says. “This is contrary to the ‘partnership’ relationship both parties have enjoyed for more than 40 years. I don’t understand the board’s efforts, except in the context of busting up the union. That is not going to happen.”
Manning says there is no intention to bust the union, and the union has not shared with the Phil's board and management the reasons behind their most recent “no” vote. They feel it is related to the union seeking more controls and fewer work rules for musicians.

"For example, the union is demanding additional rights to negotiate issues, even after a contract is reached," Manning says. "You can see how this would be a constant disruption and a barrier to having a productive working partnership. They also are demanding that musicians have more choice in when they perform and what times of day they are willing to work. This can result in instances like we experienced last year, when one of our musicians chose not to take a service (or perform) throughout the season, but still was paid each week and received benefits despite not performing. This obviously poses serious challenges to managing a professional orchestra. The Philharmonic desires to restore a positive working partnership with musicians upon a contract agreement."

A press release from the Philharmonic says, due to losses of more than $300,000 in revenue during the strike, the organization will no longer pay for the employer-sponsored health insurance for musicians as of Feb. 1. So far, musicians have received benefits during the work stoppage.

“Philharmonic ticketholders to one or more of the canceled performances will be contacted Thursday regarding their ticketing options,” the press release says.

Campbell remains optimistic a solution can and will be reached. “Negotiations are ongoing, and we’re going to keep working to find a resolution because we know one exists,” he says.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.