Last week, just days before they were to embark on a highly anticipated East Coast tour, the musicians of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra announced they would be going on strike. From the steps of Davies Symphony Hall, the musicians held signs that read “World Class Orchestra Low Class Management” and “Let the Music Plan On!”
The musicians had been performing without a contract since February 15, reports the San Francisco Chronicle, and decided to go on strike only after discussions with management fell apart and they rejected a proposed “cooling off” period by management that would have seen them continue to perform. “Management is seeking a contract that will not even allow us to keep up with the cost of living, while cutting our retirement,” said Dave Gaudry, violist and chair of the Musicians’ Negotiating Committee, in a statement. “At the same time, Management has rewarded itself significant bonuses, expanded programming and announced it will pursue a more than $500 million renovation of Davies Hall. We had sincerely hoped that there would not be a disruption, but the future of our symphony is at stake.”
According to the musicians, negotiations halted over a proposed pay freeze and cuts to benefits by management that doesn’t align with the orchestra’s endowment, which is larger than other major orchestras such as Los Angeles and Chicago. In addition, the executive director’s salary reportedly “increased by over 34% in the last two years,” according to a statement on the musicians’ website. The musicians are also asking the management to open their financial records, a request that has not been granted. In press releases, the management has claimed that higher compensation is the main goal of the musicians.
The musicians “have rejected proposals from the Orchestra administration for a new three-year contract that would have kept the musicians among the three highest paid orchestras in the country,” symphony management said in a statement. “The administration notified the musicians that a revised proposal would be presented... but the musicians decided to strike rather than continue negotiations overseen by a federal mediator.”
“It has been framed by the Symphony administration that this is the argument: whether or not the musicians are paid enough,” said David Schoenbrun, president of the Musicians Union Local Six, in a phone conversation with ARTINFO. “It’s been an effective PR tool for them but it reduces the issues at hand.”
The orchestra’s public relation’s and communications offices did not respond to ARTINFO’s requests for comment from members of the management staff.
From outside the orchestra, the response to the strike has been puzzling. The New York Times dedicated more space to criticizing the musicians for “darkening the halls” of the Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall than pertinent details about the musicians rights, while the New Yorker’s Russell Platt wrote a blog post expressing how disappointed he was that he won’t be able to hear the musicians play, and mentioned the strike in exactly one sentence.
It’s not just the media who are ignoring the problems the musicians face. Many of the comments to the updates the musicians have been posting to their website have been critical of the strike. In a letter to the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this week, one reader wrote, “Boo the striking musicians.”
The musicians know it’s not easy explaining to most people why artists who get paid over $100,000 a year should be complaining.
“It’s reductionist to say they’re making enough and should be happy,” Schoenbrun said. “They need to be compensated at the highest comfortable levels of their peer orchestras, and that’s simply not going on, and it’s not not going on, which is the real rub, because the Symphony is in financial trouble, which is what they would like everyone to believe.”
For now, both sides are at a standstill, with no plans at the moment to get back to the negotiating table. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the National Symphony Orchestra have publicly offered support for their peers via statements to the press. While the cancellation of the tour is a shock to fans looking forward to the San Francisco Symphony’s rare appearance on the East Coast, Schoenbrun sees the action as not just important, but essential. “Sometimes these things need to happen in order to send a strong enough message.”
UPDATE: After the publication of this story, Oliver Theil, director of communications of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, responded to our request for comment. His response can be read here.