San Francisco Symphony musicians ratify new contract

SAN FRANCISCO – After an 18-day strike, the musicians of the San Francisco Symphony ratified a new 26-month contract April 13, including a 4.5 percent salary increase that raises the annual base salary from $141,700 to $148,200.

Musicians initially called for a 15 percent pay hike to keep up with the Bay Area’s high cost of living; management had offered 2 percent.

The musicians, members of the American Federation of Musicians Local 6, overcame draconian proposals to slash pay of substitutes and extras. They defeated efforts to create a tiered workforce with substitute and extra musicians paid less for performing the same job.

Though the musicians kept the medical plan in which most orchestra members are enrolled, they will have to pay more out-of-pocket. Orchestra members said that, and “minimal changes” in working conditions, amount to a net pay cut.

The musicians also defeated a proposal to raise the minimum retirement age to 65, from the present 62.

“We are very happy to be bringing our music back to the stage at Davies Symphony Hall,” negotiating committee head David Gaudry, a violist, said in a statement.

Gaudry said that over the course of the talks, “musicians were told repeatedly that we must accept deep cuts and freezes and the concept of a ‘net-savings’ contract, despite the financial health of the organization. It was not until we went on strike that we were able to achieve a settlement that did not move us too far backwards in terms of wages and benefits.”

In contesting management’s claims of financial hardship, the players cited the orchestra’s endowment – at near $300 million the second largest in the country. They pointed out that management spent $11 million on a centennial celebration last year, and plans to spend as much as $500,000 on expanding the orchestra’s home auditorium, Davies Symphony Hall.

The strike by the San Francisco symphony’s musicians was one in a series of recent labor disputes affecting symphony musicians around the country, as orchestra managements, pleading loss of revenue during the Great Recession, sought concessions from players.

The most drastic situation is that of the Minneapolis Orchestra’s musicians, locked out since Oct. 1.

The musicians say they are being asked to agree to pay cuts of 30-50 percent as well as health care cost hikes amounting to $5,000 to $8,000 a year per musician. The management proposal would cut the orchestra’s size significantly and make over 250 changes to the contract – cuts the musicians say would “negatively impact the orchestra’s quality and greatly diminish its product, making it impossible to attract or retain the finest musicians.”

In a letter to the Minnesota Orchestra’s CEO, Michael Henson, earlier this month, the orchestra’s negotiating committee pointed out that musicians have offered several proposals that management has rejected, including binding arbitration and play-and-talk with a no-strike guarantee.

“Since April 2012,” the musicians wrote, “you have demanded $5 million in annual reductions from the musicians. Without input from the community, you have insisted on an overreaching and draconian reduction in the orchestra’s budget and scope that would destroy the world-class standing of the orchestra as we know it. You have not moved from that position.”

They also noted that the musicians voluntarily gave back $4.5 million in contract concessions in 2009, and management rejected their offer of further concessions in 2010.

Their sister Twin Cities ensemble, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra – also locked out Oct. 1 – recently reached a tentative agreement.

In Atlanta, Ga., symphony musicians were summarily locked out after they proposed to take an 11 percent pay cut if senior management staff would do the same. They later agreed to accept a significant pay cut as well as reduction of the orchestra’s membership from 93 to 88 musicians. Senior management also took a 6 percent cut in pay.

Chicago Symphony musicians struck for 48 hours last September before agreeing to minimal salary increases in a two-year contract

Photo: San Francisco Symphony musicians walk the picket line on March 21 (PW/Marilyn Bechtel)


Marilyn Bechtel
Marilyn Bechtel

Marilyn Bechtel writes for People’s World from the San Francisco Bay Area. She joined the PW staff in 1986, and currently participates as a volunteer.