Bailed-Out Kennedy Center Violated Union Contract, National Symphony Orchestra Musicians Say

National Symphony Orchestra performing at Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts / Getty Images
April 1, 2020

National Symphony Orchestra members are accusing the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts of violating their collective bargaining agreement by providing just a week's notice before cutting off their pay.

Attorneys for the District of Columbia Federation of Musicians said in a letter on Tuesday that the organization's decision violated federal labor laws and the plain requirements of the contract.

"The Center has no basis for failing to honor its contractual obligation to continue to pay musicians," the letter says. "The Center's position that federal labor law permits it to breach its contractual obligation to pay musicians is unfounded."

News of the drastic cuts came just hours after President Donald Trump signed a coronavirus relief package into law that included a $25 million bailout for the Kennedy Center. The organization's decision to proceed with layoffs after receiving taxpayer funds has angered employees and lawmakers alike.

The Kennedy Center shut down in mid-March in response to the pandemic, which has led revenue to plummet. Steve Wilson, a bassoonist and cochairman of the federation, said that the union had been willing to work with management to address the shutdown, but that rather than responding to the union, Kennedy Center officials unilaterally decided to stop paying musicians after April 3.

"Kennedy Center president Deborah Rutter illegally decided to stop paying us, and refused to promise to continue our healthcare past May," Wilson said in a statement. "We have, throughout, been willing to collaborate and discuss ways to work with Kennedy Center management during this challenging time. Illegally breaking our contract isn't an option here."

The Kennedy Center did not respond to a request for comment.

Musicians are not the only Kennedy Center employees affected by layoffs. On Tuesday, the center informed the rest of the symphony's staff that they would no longer be paid and that their health insurance coverage would expire on May 10. It plans to furlough 60 percent of the staff in order to deal with the fallout from the pandemic.

Rutter sent a private email to supporters on Tuesday afternoon in an attempt to quell public outcry over the layoffs. She announced that the center plans to spend $12.75 million on employee pay and another $7.5 million on health benefits using the stimulus funds. Despite having an endowment of nearly $100 million, the center said it will run out of funds by July even if it reopens in May.

"It is imperative that we scale back the entire institution's personnel costs during this time of closure and dearth of ticket income," Rutter said. "If no changes are made to our spending patterns, even if we are able to open in mid-May, with the recent $25 million federal stimulus funding, the Kennedy Center would run out of cash as early as July."

Wilson dismissed Rutter's claims, pointing out that cultural institutions have managed to maintain worker pay without the aid of nine-figure endowments and multimillion-dollar taxpayer bailouts.

"Much smaller and less-resourced organizations than the Kennedy Center have managed to take care of their workers," Wilson said. "We'd hope that the Kennedy Center—part of the federal government—could be a standard-bearer, rather than leading the race to the bottom."