Thursday, March 14, 2013

Scenes from the SF Symphony Strike

The San Francisco Symphony has been working without a contract since last fall, and at Wednesday morning's rehearsal for a series of concerts featuring Mahler's final, Ninth Symphony under Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas, they voted to walk out on strike. This forced the cancellation of Thursday's matinee performance, and potentially the remainder of the concerts for the weekend, plus a four-concert tour next week that includes New York's Carnegie Hall.

The Symphony PR Department quickly sent out a release yesterday morning, announcing there would be a press conference at 11AM in their Green Room. In a symbol of how bad communications are between the musicians and management right now, it took a while to realize that the musicians had also announced a press conference at the same time on the Grove Street outdoor stairs. Consequently, the press scrum was instructed to attend the musicians' event first and then return to the Green Room for a conference with Executive Director Brent Assink.

It was odd seeing symphony star players such as associate principal cellist Peter Wyrick above, wearing shades, in civilian clothes looking adrift. Plus, the strike seems so unnecessary because money does not really seem to be the major issue. The SF Symphony, in contrast to many other orchestras around the country, is in very good financial and artistic shape. They are sounding better than at any other time I've heard them over the last forty years, and just came off a 100th year anniversary that was a spectacular success.

According to an article by Janos Gereben at SF Classical Voice, "Ironically, it is exactly the Symphony's robust financial health that is a main issue for the musicians, who feel they are not getting their fair share." Gereben quotes the Players' Committee: "In the 10-year period from 2001 through calendar year 2011 top symphony leadership received salary increases in amounts substantially greater than the increases provided for musicians. The salary for the Executive Director Brent Assink increased by 79% — over 50% more than the increases for the musicians over the same timeframe. According to the latest IRS 990 forms, in 2010, the Music Director [Michael Tilson Thomas] was paid $2.4 million, 18.5 times more than the guaranteed base pay for musicians."

(Photo above is of Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik, who made $518,197 last year, which is quite a bit more than the base pay for SF Symphony musicians that is somewhere between $140,000 and $160,000 depending on who is doing the averaging.)

Part of the public relations problem for the Symphony musicians is that they are already being paid very well, more than colleagues on orchestras in New York, Boston, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Atlanta, and Houston among others. The only two orchestras paying more are Chicago and Los Angeles, so their rallying cry is pay parity with those institutions, which is not a particularly compelling message. And though he may be one of the nicest guys on the planet, violist and players' committee spokesman Dave Gaudry above looks like he was sent from Central Casting to play a union goon in an old Warner Brothers movie.

It would be difficult, though, to be receiving Grammy awards for your work and seeing everyone in the organization being rewarded but you. Giving the Executive Director "longevity" bonuses for his 17-year tenure of approximately $280,000 over the last couple of years was probably not the best idea when about to negotiate a contract with union musicians. This is especially true if you are offering a new "austerity plan" that includes a wage freeze in the first year, and 1% raises in the following two years, along with increased employee costs in health plan funding. Associate Concertmaster Nadya Tichman above has been with the Symphony since 1980 but it seems doubtful that she is being offered a similar "longevity" bonus.

What it looks like from the outside is a Human Resources department working poorly with management in a manner that doesn't know how to make employees feel wanted, needed and respected. Tympanist David Herbert, who has just jumped ship for the Chicago Orchestra after 18 years in San Francisco, writes in an open letter: "Unfortunately there has grown, over time, a cultural disconnect between the San Francisco Symphony Management and the musicians of the orchestra who make the music come to life. The increased divide between my colleagues’ service to the music and the failure of the San Francisco Symphony Management to recognize such commitment has been disheartening." (Click here for the entire letter at the musicians' strike website here. Photo above is of principal trumpet Mark Inouye, who doesn't look very happy about the whole situation.)

The press scrum wandered back to the Van Ness Avenue Green Room for a reading of management statements by Executive Director Brent Assink (click here for the full text), followed by a Q&A. He claimed to be an "irrational optimist," and hoped it would all turn out well quickly, but the most telling moment arrived when a reporter asked if Assink had attended any of the negotiating sessions, and he replied, "No," adding weakly that he was busy with donors and such.

The musicians and management are meeting all afternoon today to try and work something out with a federal mediator, and I hope Assink shows up, and that his irrational optimism results in a win for everyone. When I asked one of the musicians outside why they were so angry, the response was interesting. "We're not angry so much as we are bewildered. Why are we being treated this way?" It seems time for some healing and less disconnect.


Dividist said...

You should have gone with "Overpaid Musicians on Strike against Rich Capitalists" title.

Civic Center said...

Dear Dividist: Actually, the contemplated headline was "Overpaid Musicians Being Exploited by Capitalist Pigs," but that turned out not to be the story so I had to sadly put it in the comments trash bin.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Great posting and photos, Mike. A few things -

- Assink's bonus may have been in his contract, who knows?

- I am not sure whether the executive directors of orchestras normally do participate in contract talks with the union, but I know who to ask.

- The musicians' base salary is $141,000; the supposed average they are paid is around $165,000, according to management.

- I can't find a live link to David Herbert's letter...

Civic Center said...

Dear Lisa: Thanks for the clarifications, and especially for pointing out the lack of linkage on the letter. I'll go fix it now.

janinsanfran said...

Thanks for sorting this out for people like me who don't know the basic elements of it.

It is amazing the damage a lack of respect can cause among people who, relatively speaking, are doing just fine. I'm instinctively with the musicians, but they need to communicate better how they've been dissed if they expect sympathy. And that's not easy.

Just read David Remnick on the Bolshoi. Somehow I suspect that in some venues of elite art, that sort of thing festers. At least that's not what we've got here. Being San Francisco, nobody would be too surprised.

Dividist said...

I am just gratified we were able to retrieve that headline from the dustbin of history, even if only in the comment section.

Nancy Ewart said...

This is the clearest article yet that I have read about the strike. I do think that the largess would be shared across the board but then, I am all in favor of an egalitarian approach and respectful relations between people. Having worked at UCSF where the "little people" like myself were treated with crude contempt, I can vouch for the anger that such treatment can cause.

ChrisGambol said...

Base salary is around $141k with top being $162k plus 2 month paid vacation? Difficult for me to have sympathy, sorry. That is a great living, even in an expensive city like San Francisco. Very few musicians make that kind of stable money anywhere in the country. Sounds like union greed. The players can say "there is a disconnect" all they want - when there is a disconnect usually both parties are responsible.

momo said...

In Minneapolis and Saint Paul, our orchestras are embroiled in similar strikes, because they are fighting off proposed pay cuts of up to 20%. It's as if the management nation-wide has decided to destroy classical music. If you think they are overpaid, think again. These are people who have invested their lives and much money simply to get to be good enough to audition. The competition is ferocious. They pay for incredibly expensive instruments, often having to pay extra to transport them. They practice, rehearse and learn music constantly, including during those two months of supposed vacation. And yes, SF is an incredibly expensive place to live! I can't afford to return, ever. We are willing to pay athletes millions, but world-class musicians are called overpaid.

Unknown said...

You reports are great! Great photos. Thanks for sharing with us all here.

Concerts SF