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.