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Tough talk delays progress

The Honolulu Symphony Society’s announcement that it has "accepted the resignation" of all its musicians has all the trappings of a lockout. Both the society and the musicians’ union must cool down to reconcile their differences while reorganization aimed at emerging from bankruptcy is on the horizon.

The Musicians’ Association of Hawaii, Local 677 of the American Federation of Musicians, was wrong in taking the hardball stance that it had rejected the society’s "best and final offer" in labor contract talks. But the society went overboard in "accepting the resignation" of all the musicians as of last Tuesday, which has all the appearances of union-busting and rebuilding the symphony without its long-struggling work force.

The symphony’s board of directors had sent a letter to the 63 musicians’ union that it was willing to continue negotiations for a new contract if the union would offer a "financially realistic and sustainable" counterproposal, according to a board member. The union’s only proposal prior to that was to reduce the number of concerts to eliminate one of the 29 concerts.

The symphony cancelled half of its 2009-2010 season. The plan calls for drastically cutting the overall budget to $1.7 million from about $8 million. The overall pay to musicians would be $3,256 for five or six performances in the first year, down from $30,885 paid for more than 40 concerts in the 2008-2009 season before the bankruptcy filing. The musicians are presumed to have other jobs or freelance gigs.

The symphony has been in federal bankruptcy court since December and its reorganization plan will be considered by a judge on Oct. 15. Kimberly Miyazawa Frank, the symphony’s chairwoman, says the board has approved a "financially responsible and sustainable conceptual plan that will allow it to continue fulfilling its mission of providing live, professional symphonic music for the people of Hawaii."

How such a plan could be presented to the court without the musicians’ approval is puzzling, with all the trappings of a take-it-or-leave-it message to their union.

Indeed, Majken Mechling, the symphony’s executive director, now says she is "willing to negotiate," which is another way of saying the "best and final offer" has not been put forward.

The hardline approach could cause some musicians to depart Hawaii, regrettably.

While the nation’s economic woes have caused many symphonies to struggle, big league orchestras are looking for musicians to fill full-time openings in New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Dallas.

Both the Honolulu Symphony and the musicians say they are willing to resume negotiations, but threats of "best and final offer" by the union and lockouts by management are anything but conducive to an amicable settlement.

The two sides should seek creative ways to increase revenue through donations or other means to reach goals that will get the symphony through the economic troubles, to the community’s benefit.


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