On the eve of talks about public sector pay at the start of October, German orchestral musicians switched their tailcoats for yellow strike vests.
The protest was nationwide and coordinated. At 10am on Monday 30 September, orchestras from the Berlin Phil to the Kleindorf Town Band ignored rehearsals, downed instruments and took to the streets outside their concert hall. They brandished placards made by the German Orchestras’ Union (DOV) declaring ‘Einzigartig’ (unique) and ‘Erhaltenswert’ (invaluable) and handed out leaflets reminding passers-by of their priceless heritage and the uniqueness of the German orchestral system.
In Germany, the work of professional orchestral musicians is considered a public service and they are paid in line with hospital workers and firemen ‒ or were until 2010 when the German Stage Employers’ Association decided they were to be treated as a special case, froze their pay and had its decision upheld by law. The announcement at the end of September that pay would remain the same for a third year brought the union to industrial action as a background to the pay talks.
At the same time, further orchestral closures were announced. Germany has by far the proudest orchestral tradition in the world yet it has been systematically eroded in the last two decades. In the 22 years since reunification, the state has closed more orchestras than most countries employ. In 1991 there were 168, now there are 131, a loss of 37 or around 2,500 jobs. ‘If the decline continues, quality suffers,’ said Christian Petrenz, Union rep in Mainz. ‘The strike is a warning. If the pay talks falter and the cuts continue, we’ll consider action during performances. The public hand must protect what is valuable and not compromise it in the interest of mere austerity directives.’
French horn player Petrenz takes home €2,500 a month (c £2100). The current official tariff for German orchestral musicians is between €2,400 and €5,100 gross depending on length of service, size of orchestra and instrument played.
Meanwhile, the Musicians’ Union in the UK has expressed its solidarity with the German musicians’ strike. ‘British orchestras are also facing heavy cuts in funding,’ said MU assistant general secretary Horace Trubridge, ‘and we sympathise with the predicament of our German colleagues. The drastic reduction in German orchestras in the last 20 years is particularly alarming, [since] as we all know, an orchestra that closes is rarely, if ever, revived when the economy picks up.’