The Seattle Symphony, already beset by big financial challenges and vacancies in its two top positions, still has not reached a new contract agreement with its musicians union. The current contract expires today, and the two sides are so far apart that there's a potential for a musicians strike.

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The Seattle Symphony, already beset by immense challenges, including a $4 million debt and vacancies in its two top positions, still has not reached a new contract agreement with its musicians union and could potentially face a musicians strike.

After some eight months of negotiations, Seattle Symphony management and the Seattle Symphony and Opera Players’ Organization are still far apart on how much musicians should be paid.

The current contract, reached in 2001 and renegotiated and extended in 2005, expires today, though its terms will remain in effect until a new agreement is reached.

Symphony management is asking for a five-year contract that calls for a 10 percent wage cut, to below 2005 levels, said violist Tim Hale, chairman of the players union. The musicians’ compensation would not reach 2005 levels again until 2014, Hale said.

“We were very disappointed” with the proposal, he said.

The players union, in a meeting with management Tuesday, countered with a 20-month deal that would cut pay for the eight months remaining in this season and increase wages the year after to offset the cut.

“The decision to ask the musicians to decrease their salaries triggered a lot — a lot — of debate at the board and management level,” said board member Jean-Francois Heitz. But “we cannot run on a deficit forever.”

Seattle Symphony executive director Thomas Philion and board chairwoman Leslie Jackson Chihuly were traveling and could not immediately be reached for comment.

The union’s entire membership is expected to vote on management’s offer around mid-January, but it’s unlikely members will approve it, Hale said.

The issue goes beyond what’s in their paychecks, he said.

“Musicians see this as a pivotal point for the artistic future of the Symphony,” Hale said. Longtime music director Gerard Schwarz is stepping down at the close of the 2010-11 season, and “any new artistic director will be hiring musicians under this agreement. The decisions we make on this bargaining agreement will potentially affect the Symphony for a generation.”

The Symphony needs to offer competitive wages to attract high-caliber musicians, Hale said.

Last season, the players’ minimum base pay was $78,750 — paid by both the Seattle Symphony and Seattle Opera. Hale says that is lower than at comparable orchestras in other cities — though Symphony management says direct comparisons are hard to make.

Symphony spokeswoman Rosalie Contreras could not discuss the details of the negotiations but said: “We’re all trying to achieve artistic excellence. It’s our primary mission.” The economy, though, has forced management to “analyze our resources and make decisions,” she said.

Earlier this year four nonunion staffers were laid off and all nonunion employees took a week of furlough, and there’s a hiring freeze, she said.

The two sides are so far apart that union members voted earlier this month to authorize a strike, if an agreement can’t be reached — a move that’s been made a handful of times in Hale’s 24 years with the orchestra. The last time the Seattle Symphony had a strike was about 30 years ago.

But in addition to the Symphony’s artistic future, the current negotiations are crucial to the orchestra’s financial future.

The Symphony ended its most recent fiscal year with a $1.2 million deficit and accumulated debt of $4 million. Its endowment — worth about $24.1 million currently — is low for an orchestra of its size.

But that’s because the 106-year-old Symphony is younger than its peers on the East Coast, board member Heitz said. “The endowment is built over time.”

Heitz said the board and management are working to try to increase ticket sales and donations.

The union already made $3.2 million in wage and benefit concessions during the last round of contract talks in 2005, Hale said.

In addition to the contract, the Symphony also faces the daunting task of searching for replacements for Schwarz and executive director Philion, who announced earlier this month he wouldn’t renew his contract when it expires in June. Philion, who led two years of balanced budgets before the current fiscal year deficit, is the Symphony’s third executive director in six years.

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com