In a city fretting over whether New York might eventually pluck Lebron James (who makes $15.7 million a year) by making him a salary offer the Cavs can’t match*, the Cleveland Orchestra players negotiating over their median $140,000 salaries might seem like small potatoes. After all, the orchestra is perennially ranked among the best in the world. It’s a small price to pay for the pride of a rust belt city.

But the orchestra is facing tough times. Its endowment fell 22 percent in the year ending last June, and it's currently facing a $2 million operating deficit. A year ago, music director Franz Welser-Most and executive director Gary Hanson respectively took 15-percent and 20-percent pay cuts. Senior staff took cuts of 10 percent. The rest of the non-union staff, 5 percent. From the administrators’ perspective, they are simply asking the musicians to share the pain.

But an orchestra’s reputation is not built on the quality of its staff. The musicians have to do that from the stage, and they say that to accept the contract the orchestra has offered — a 5 percent pay cut for the first year, restoration of the cut in the second, and a 2.5 percent salary increase in the third year — would hurt the orchestra’s ability to attract top players, and therefore eventually damage their quality and reputation. The musicians countered with a proposed pay freeze to be effective immediately, with salary discussions to resume in a year. Management wouldn’t budge.

Congressman Dennis Kucinich, always supportive of the little guy, has taken the side of the musicians. In a letter to Hanson and the Musical Arts Association’s Board President, Kucinich wrote, “I strongly oppose any effort by the Musical Arts Association to force the musicians of the Cleveland Orchestra to take an unreasonable and unwarranted 5-percent pay cut following already significant reductions in their health care and retirement plans. I urge you to resume meaningful negotiations with the musicians and ensure their compensation package is sufficiently competitive to maintain or increase the caliber of the Cleveland Orchestra.”

As of Monday afternoon, the musicians and management had gone back to the table. The orchestra has no more concerts scheduled at Severance Hall until February 4, but the urgency is from a couple of touring commitments which help their bottom line.

Orchestra spokeswoman Ana Papakhian (one of the staffers who took a 10-percent cut) says more performances on tour — specifically residencies in Vienna, Miami and at Indiana University — have added $7 million to the orchestra’s revenue. But if they don’t come to an agreement, the Indiana and Miami residencies are in jeopardy, which, even if the concerts were rescheduled, would diminish those gains. Papakhian says in order to make good on the performance Wednesday in Indiana, they need resolution at this afternoon’s talks. Failing that, in order to keep their commitment in Miami, they need to have the contract resolved and be on their way Thursday. — Michael Gill

* Scene sports writer Vince Grzegorek: "New York, or any team, can't offer LeBron more than Cavs. Cavs can actually offer millions and millions more because collective bargaining agreement allows teams to offfer more to their own free agents."

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