SF Symphony strikers protest out-of-tune execs

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SAN FRANCISCO - Tired of prolonged stalling by management, over 100 musicians of the San Francisco Symphony - one of the country's top symphony orchestras - are now in the second week of a strike. On March 21 they took their protest to the streets.

As a quintet from the orchestra's brass section livened spirits and attracted passers-by, other musicians marched holding signs: "Management is out of tune!" "Bonuses for management, cuts for musicians," "Bring the music back!"

"This is about fairness, and an organization that has lost sight of its mission," said negotiating committee member Cathy Payne, who plays flute and piccolo. Payne said the symphony's management is focusing on a building campaign while expecting the orchestra members to take wage freezes and cuts in benefits.

If the orchestra were in financial trouble, she said, the musicians would accept a shared sacrifice.

But SFS' endowment, approaching $300 million, is the second largest of any orchestra in the country. Musicians point out that management spent $11 million on a centennial celebration last year, and is now planning to spend as much as half a billion dollars to expand its home auditorium, Davies Symphony Hall.

They also note that the orchestra has given large bonuses to its top executives. In the ten years from 2001 through calendar year 2011, the executive director's pay increased by 79 percent, while top executives' salaries went up by amounts significantly greater than increases accorded the players.

As in virtually all recent contract negotiations, health care looms as a big issue. "We've said we'll look at ways to find savings, and we've offered to pay more," Payne said. "But management is asking us to agree to a large cut."

Pensions are also on the table, said fellow negotiating committee member Linda Lukas, also a flautist. She said management is insisting on a freeze, and seeks to raise the retirement age.

The musicians are also asking for detailed information on how the orchestra's resources are used, including the relation of the budget to the endowment, and how public funds are spent.

Cellist Margaret Tait, an orchestra member since 1974, pointed out that musicians, who earn a median salary of around $140,000 a year, put in at least as much unpaid time in preparation and in maintaining their musical and technical abilities as they do in paid rehearsal and performance time.

In addition, she said, orchestra members must buy and maintain their own instruments and equipment, with players of stringed instruments often investing $200,000 or more to purchase a suitable instrument. (Article continues after slideshow.)

Joining the protest were members of nearby American Federation of Musicians locals and members of other unions as well as concerned listeners, as passing vehicles honked their support. The San Francisco Labor Council helped spread the word about the picket. 

Talks between the musicians, represented by the American Federation of Musicians Local 6, and management have gone on for some eight months. The musicians' contract expired Feb. 10 - the same day it was announced that the orchestra had won its 15th Grammy Award, this time for the best orchestral performance of 2012.

The strike that started March 13 forced cancellation of a long-awaited East Coast tour, with concerts slated for New York's Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

The orchestra's musicians are asking supporters to contact Executive Director Brent Assink, bassink@sfsymphony.org, and/or Board President Sako Fisher, sfs@fishersf.com.

More information can be found at http://www.musiciansofthesanfranciscosymphony.org.

Photo: PW/Marilyn Bechtel

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