SAN ANTONIO SYMPHONY LEADERSHIP REJECTS MUSICIANS’ CONTRACT OFFER
January 18, 2022
The American Federation of Musicians Local 23, on strike since September 27, is calling for the resignation of the management and board of the Symphony Society of San Antonio. The union on January 6 gave the Society an offer for the musicians to return to work for the rest of this season in return for reinstatement of the current collective bargaining agreement for the remainder of the season, which under new financial projections the Society can afford.
The musicians’ union presented the offer at a meeting with management on Thursday, January 6. On January 18 Symphony executive director Corey Cowart sent the union a statement that the Symphony is going to continue its plans to cancel concerts due to the strike. There was no counterproposal.
“The Symphony board members have now proven to the community beyond a shadow of doubt that their true intent is to put an end to the San Antonio Symphony,” said Richard Oppenheim, president of AFM Local 23.
“Those entrusted with managing the future of one of the oldest symphony orchestras in the United States have thus assured its destruction,” said union negotiating committee chair Mary Ellen Goree. “Rejecting our proposal is a clear failure of leadership.”
The current season would have been the San Antonio Symphony’s 82nd.
The union decided to make the offer after learning from financial statements routinely obtained by union representatives to the Society board that the Society is projecting a surplus of up to $1.8 million for the current season – bolstered by federal money in two Shuttered Venue Operators Grants and an employee retention tax credit. Also, no musicians have been paid since September and the vacant artistic director position is saving money.
Furthermore, the Symphony Society has weathered the pandemic with help from the infusion of nearly $2 million in federal Paycheck Protection Program money, the other federal grants, the clearing of significant debt thanks to the federal cash infusions, and not having an artistic director’s salary to pay.
The projected cost of completing the 2021-’22 season under the union’s proposal depended on when the Symphony would have resumed performances had it accepted the proposal. But it is clear that the currently projected $1.8 million in the bank would have covered the cost of completing the season.
The union called the strike on September 27 after the Symphony Society unilaterally imposed its demand to reduce the orchestra from 72 full-time musicians to 42 “core” musicians and a shorter season, from 31 to 24 weeks. 26 musicians would perform part time at a maximum wage of $11,250 per year, without healthcare. The Society pulled healthcare benefits from all musicians, including the so-called “core,” with a day's notice at the end of October.
“Putting us back on stage would also be seen as a positive sign by the donor community with a resulting boost to the Symphony Society fundraising,” Goree said. “Rejecting our offer is a clear indication that this board and management have given up. They should admit their failure and let others with more acumen and desire to see the San Antonio Symphony thrive bring a new era of energy and ideas.”
The orchestra is contractually comprised of 72 musicians who live and work in the San Antonio community. The musicians come from all over the United States and every corner of the world, earning their positions by taking a blind, nationally advertised audition and competing with the most talented orchestral musicians in the field.
An Intolerable Situation
in San Antonio
The following article appeared in the December 2021 issue of Senza Sordino and is reprinted with permission.
As all of ICSOM (International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians) knows, the musicians of the San Antonio Symphony have been on an unfair labor practice strike since September 27, following management’s unilateral declaration of impasse and imposition of intolerable terms on September 26.
During the summer of 2020, the musicians met with our management and board to negotiate drastic, pandemic-related modifications to our Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) for the 2020-2021 season only. In addition to a significant reduction in weeks and weekly salary, a clause was included allowing either side to request before January 15, 2021 to renegotiate the final year of the contract (2021–22), specifically due to the uncertainties of the pandemic. This reopener also included a requirement that we engage in Interest-Based Bargaining (IBB) through at least May 31, 2021 before either side could request a return to traditional bargaining.
The request to use IBB came from management, and everyone involved went through IBB training with Federal Mediation & Conciliation Service (FMCS) facilitators in February 2021.
Negotiations for our third year reopener started slowly, partly because the musicians also requested to reopen our 2020–21 season Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) after the Symphony Society of San Antonio (SSSA) received its second Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, but also because the required IBB process was excruciatingly cumbersome. The MOA negotiations ended with no satisfaction to the musicians. We found the IBB process to be ineffective, and we did not have a positive experience with the FMCS mediators assigned to us. The musicians requested a return to traditional bargaining at the beginning of summer 2021.
It was only then that we finally understood what we were up against. Because the IBB process did not allow for any open discussion of proposals, we did not receive the SSSA’s first proposal until the summer. It was jaw-dropping. Management’s first proposal included a 50% pay cut (to just over $17,000 base pay) for all 72 musicians. But they also presented an alternative proposal, with slightly higher pay, if we were willing to toss many of our colleagues under the bus by converting them to “B” contract players.
The ensuing negotiating sessions were frustrating and unproductive. On September 3, the musicians offered a proposal that included a 17% pay cut, with four new furlough weeks, and a joint musician-management fundraising initiative. This was rejected out of hand. Management responded by issuing a “last, best, and final” offer (LBFO) that would have created a core of 42 musicians with “A” contracts ($24,000 base pay plus benefits) and a second class of 26 musicians with “B” contracts ($11,250 guaranteed minimum, no health insurance, no benefits). Four currently vacant positions would be eliminated. The committee brought the LBFO to our colleagues for a vote, and it was unanimously rejected.
On September 26, management declared impasse and imposed the terms contained in the LBFO. Because management’s declaration of impasse was unlawful—we were still willing to negotiate—and because we could not possibly work under those conditions, the musicians called an unfair labor practice strike on September 27.
It had become increasingly clear through the course of negotiations that our management was using the reopener provision in the 2020 MOA not as a way to deal with uncertainties related to the pandemic, but as an excuse to address what they deemed to be long-standing problems in the organization. This is evidenced by the fact that the SSSA has been proposing an A/B orchestra as far back as 2007. So, along with the strike, the musicians filed a grievance with the SSSA for violation of the reopener provision, as well as unfair labor practice charges with the NLRB. Both the grievance and the charges are currently in process.
It’s important to note that these events are transpiring after decades of financial mismanagement on the part of the SSSA along with a lengthy history of musicians being asked for and agreeing to take pay cuts, with assurances every time that those cuts would enable our board and management to get their house in order moving forward.
We are also still living with the fallout of the cannibalization of our endowment in the 1990s to pay salaries—a shortsighted move that not only wiped out our endowment for the future, but also alienated a number of very generous donors who had expected to fund the symphony in perpetuity, not just keep the lights on.
So what now? Up to this point, our management and board has been resistant to any suggestion that their plan will result in the destruction of the Symphony, despite all evidence. Musicians are already leaving for greener pastures. Public opinion is squarely in the musicians’ corner. We need a change in our leadership’s direction, or more directly, a change in leadership.
Announcement from the Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony // September 29, 2021
The Symphony Society of San Antonio has announced that it is not interested in negotiating any further and that it is unilaterally imposing its intolerable proposal to reduce more than 40% of the Symphony to part-time gig workers at salaries of approximately $11,000 per year, to reduce the salaries of the remaining full-time musicians by approximately one-third, and to destroy the artistic integrity of the San Antonio Symphony by reducing it to a chamber ensemble. This announcement follows the 20-21 pandemic season during which the musicians voluntarily accepted a salary reduction of just over 80%. The musicians have already unanimously rejected the terms being imposed, and have voted “no confidence” in the leadership of Symphony executive director Corey Cowart and board chair Kathleen Vale by an overwhelming margin.
Representatives of the Symphony Society’s board and management made it clear to us at the negotiating table that they were not interested in an emergency fundraising appeal to the public. This astonishing refusal to engage in necessary fundraising over the past several months reveals compellingly that the Symphony board never intended to preserve the San Antonio Symphony that its gifted musicians have sacrificed so much to maintain. Instead, the Symphony Board has used the pandemic as an excuse for a radical restructuring of the Symphony that has been proposed and rejected many times in years past. It is now clear that the board and management entered into negotiations with a fixed intention to agree to only their own demands.
The musicians do not dispute that the Symphony Society has a revenue problem, but it was not caused by the musicians’ salaries, which are already extremely low by any standard, especially when compared to orchestras in comparably sized cities. Instead, the crisis stems from a willful refusal to recognize the need for a mass emergency fundraising appeal. To add insult to injury, the Symphony management has locked the musicians out for the current week by unilaterally canceling the previously announced rehearsal and performance schedule.
The musicians, represented by the American Federation of Musicians, Local 23, refuse to be complicit in the action taken by Kathleen Vale and the board to destroy the San Antonio Symphony, and will not cooperate in the unjust betrayal of more than 40% of their colleagues.
Therefore AFM Local 23 is initiating a lawful strike in protest of the Symphony Society’s betrayal of the good faith the musicians have exercised during the pandemic, willful refusal to construct a mass appeal to the business community and the public for adequate funding, unfair labor practices of bad faith bargaining, including, for example, demanding these radical changes with no intention of considering the musicians’ reasonable proposals for solutions.
Consistent with the strike, we have asked the American Federation of Musicians to place the San Antonio Symphony on its international unfair list and advise all members of the AFM not to perform for the San Antonio Symphony.
We urge the community of Symphony supporters and concert-goers to contact Symphony management offices in support of the musicians, and not to attend any purported Symphony performances by musicians who are not the true San Antonio Symphony musicians. Supporters are encouraged to contact Symphony executive director Corey Cowart at firstname.lastname@example.org with their concerns.
Mary Ellen Goree
Chair, Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony
President, Local 23, American Federation of Musicians