Kennedy Center Strikes Deal to Pay Orchestra

Culture org attempted to cut pay after receiving $25 million bailout

Kennedy Center
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April 7, 2020

The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts has struck a deal with members of the National Symphony Orchestra after attempting to halt salary payments to the musicians.

The organization's decision ignited a furor because it came just hours after President Donald Trump signed a stimulus package that sent the Kennedy Center $25 million. Tuesday's move is an attempt to quell the anger.

The District of Columbia Federation of Musicians, the union that represents the orchestra members, announced to its 96 members on Tuesday morning that it had reached a deal to avoid unpaid furloughs stemming from the coronavirus pandemic. Under the terms of the new agreement, musicians will take a partial pay cut as long as the Kennedy Center remains closed. They will also accept a wage freeze for the remainder of the calendar year.

In exchange for continued pay, the musicians agreed to drop a grievance filed against the Kennedy Center. Orchestra leaders welcomed the development but maintained that the center's actions were illegal.

"That action [the furlough] was not permitted under our collective bargaining agreement," the union said in a release obtained by the Washington Free Beacon. "In recognition of the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Kennedy Center, however, we have agreed to modify our collective bargaining agreement to make substantial economic concessions."

The Kennedy Center said in a release that the new agreement will save more than $2.5 million in payroll through September and provide $4 million in savings that represent a "substantial long-term investment in the Kennedy Center’s future." Such cuts were necessary after the venue closed its doors on March 13.

"This is an unprecedented time for all of us here in D.C. and around the world," Kennedy Center president Deborah F. Rutter said in a statement. "The severe economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have unfolded at an incredibly rapid pace, requiring all of us to work together and demanding the highest levels of strategic and creative thinking to solve our problems in the long-term. We are grateful to the musicians of the NSO for partnering with us and that, together, we have found a way forward."

The center, which did not return a request for comment, caused a firestorm when it informed orchestra members that they would no longer receive paychecks after April 3. Rutter broke the news to the union just hours after President Trump signed a $25 million bailout as part of the $2 trillion CARES Act, a stimulus bill intended to address the economic stagnation caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

The union immediately filed a grievance saying that the decision violated federal labor law and its contract, which requires at least six weeks' notice before paychecks can stop. Lawmakers followed suit by threatening to rescind the bailout.

Rutter justified mass layoffs as necessary to the future survival of the Kennedy Center in an email to supporters days after the Washington Free Beacon broke the story. The center plans to spend $12.75 million on employee compensation and another $7.5 million on health benefits. Despite having an endowment of nearly $100 million, the arts organization claimed it would run out of money by July even if it reopens on schedule 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."

While the musicians were pleased with the terms of the agreement, they called on the center to do more for laid off support staff and other non-union workers employed by the NSO. The union pledged to provide at least $50,000 from its members' pockets to help pay those workers over the next 10 weeks.

"We urge the Kennedy Center to bring back the Orchestra’s staff as a matter of fairness and so that our venture can flourish. We need their talents to help start new musical projects to present to our patrons and the larger world," the union said. "While it is not enough to make them whole, we hope that it helps materially as well as demonstrating our respect and admiration for them."

The Kennedy Center is scheduled to reopen on May 10.