Seeds Were Sown Years Earlier For 1999 Toronto Symphony Strike

Volume XCIX, No. 11December, 1999

Leonard Leibowitz

Members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra had been on strike for seven weeks, as this issue went to press. Allegro asked Local 802 Counsel Leonard Leibowitz, who is representing the players, to explain the issues fueling the strike.

As it is with most work stoppages, the seeds of the current strike of the musicians of the Toronto Symphony were sown years before.

In 1989 the orchestra achieved a contract which placed their level of annual compensation far ahead of any other Canadian orchestra – and, indeed, in tenth place among all North American orchestras. No orchestra in Canada had ever had a guaranteed season of 50 weeks, and none has reached that level since then.

In 1992, however, the walls came crashing down. After months of virtually fruitless negotiations, management’s representatives announced that if the givebacks and concessions they were demanding were not granted, they would immediately discontinue operations and file for bankruptcy. To fully understand the impact of such a threat, one must realize that in Canada the TSO is roughly equivalent in stature to our Chicago Symphony or New York Philharmonic. Bankruptcy and dissolution was as astounding a notion to the TSO musicians as it would be to the players in Chicago or New York.

Nevertheless, rather than make a stand at that time, they chose to believe management promises which accompanied the threat – to “make it up to them” in the next round of negotiations. They reluctantly agreed to cut back the season from 50 weeks to 44 (representing a 16 percent reduction in annual income) and to freeze their wages for three years.


But the TSO Board completely ignored its promises of restoration and progress in 1995. Once again, the musicians were presented with a concessionary proposal. Once again, they failed to “just say no.” Instead, they signed on for another four years of regret.

During 1992-99 other orchestras in both Canada and the United States, with whom the TSO musicians had always compared themselves, were making gains and either maintaining their previous ranking or moving forward. In Canada alone, the two other comparable orchestras – the Montreal Symphony and National Arts Centre Orchestra – both engaged in successful strikes which propelled them ahead of Toronto.

Thus, by the time the TSO contract expired in 1999, the orchestra was still earning 9 percent less than in 1992. It ranked third in Canada and 24th in North America. Even a casual observer could see that a work stoppage was inevitable – one which some might say was seven years late.

Not only had the musicians suffered the financial and emotional repercussions of watching a proud and musically excellent ensemble drop in the rankings, but fewer top-flight applicants showed up for auditions, as more and more of the best players began taking jobs elsewhere. Moreover, the Board’s neglect and incompetence was becoming manifest. Despite Toronto’s enormous wealth, the orchestra’s budget deficit continued to grow and the Board’s only response was to cut or freeze musicians’ income.

A graphic demonstration of the Board’s lack of vision and lethargy was their almost comical (if not so tragic) announcement of an endowment drive with a goal of a feeble $10 million. Endowments in most major North American cities approach, and in some cases exceed, $100 million!

Once again, the old trade union axiom proved true – the employer is always the best organizer! A once divided and demoralized orchestra had had enough. No one was prepared to accept yet another regressive contract. No one was willing to listen to tales of woe or accept more broken promises. Equity, payback and parity with comparable orchestras, especially in the U.S., became the theme of the 1999 negotiations.


Nevertheless, in recognition of the size of the gap between them, the comparisons used by the union’s negotiators were not with Chicago, New York or Boston. Instead, they argued for parity with the next level of U. S. orchestras, such as Pittsburgh, National and St. Louis, many of whom they had previously outranked. Despite the obvious fact that U. S. orchestras compete for the same talent as Montreal or NACO, management negotiators would only use Canadian orchestras as comparisons.

After a number of months of virtually meaningless proposals by management, the parties engaged a mediator to attempt to find common ground. Within a few sessions, however, the mediator recognized the enormity of the task and announced that there was nothing further he could do.

The strike began on Sept. 18, the scheduled start of the orchestra’s subscription season. As of this writing, the orchestra remains united, the media coverage has been uniformly supportive of the musicians, and the players have been extraordinarily busy playing benefit concerts, picketing and helping each other emotionally and financially to get through this crisis. Other orchestras in both countries have been very helpful, some walking the picket line with the strikers and others sending money and offering to play joint benefit concerts. While there does not appear to be an end in sight, everyone remains upbeat, hopeful and – most of all – resolute.