A Tale of Two Cities

Updated: Apr 27

This is a tale of two cities, or more properly the orchestras in two cities, both of which have a history of labor disputes in the 21st century.

First, let’s consider the Detroit Symphony in 2010 – 2011. From

“Members of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra have gone on strike over a substantial pay cut, raising doubts about several scheduled performances…The musicians walked out Monday morning, saying they would not agree to a 33% pay cut. They had countered with a 22% salary reduction.”

Let’s take a closer look at this. Under the contract in place at the time, the base starting salary for a musician was $104,650 with nine weeks of paid vacation, just a little less than Cleveland and other Big Five orchestras. Meanwhile, Detroit in 2010 had become a symbol for economic destruction (see The city was struggling.

After a six month strike, the musicians agreed to return to work with a 25% pay cut the first year, bringing the starting salary down from just under $105,000 to $79,000. While a 25% cut is always significant and never to be celebrated, it’s important to note that from the standpoint of attracting replacement talent, $79,000 was still a reasonable living wage in the Detroit of 2011. Furthermore, Detroit is in geographic reach of many other major metropolitan areas.

Now let's take a look at San Antonio in 2022. Surely San Antonio, like Detroit in 2010, must be an economically depressed city, yes? No!

In fact, the San Antonio-New Braunfels Metropolitan Statistical Area grew 19% from 2010 to 2020. And while it is true that there are many low-income people in San Antonio, there are many high-income people as well; San Antonio leads the nation in income disparity I mention this not because it is a good thing, but because the argument that San Antonio is a low-income city is disingenuous at best, leaving out significant facts about the population.

Turning to the San Antonio Symphony of 2021 – 2022, we see that starting salary under the contract in place for the 2021-2022 season was supposed to be $35,774. While San Antonio is (like Detroit) a low cost-of-living city, just under $36,000 a year is not a salary that would provide a comfortable living to anyone, and is low enough that most highly trained professionals in any field would be insulted at such an offer. Furthermore, there is no room to go down from that number, not while still being paid a living wage.

The Symphony Society, having moved slightly upwards from their initial penurious offers of $17,000 (to the entire orchestra) or $24,000 (to 60% of the orchestra), is now offering just over $30,000 to an ensemble of 50 musicians, to be achieved by attrition.

I will mention as an aside the very real problem that reducing the ensemble size by attrition would leave the San Antonio Symphony lacking entire sections (the oboes) or half-sections (the horns), as well as the fact that Beethoven 9/Carmina Burana/Mahler/John Williams concerts sell out while Haydn symphony concerts typically do not. People want to hear a full symphony orchestra. Even board member Eric DuPre has made mention of the “mesmerizing” effect of hearing a full orchestra on stage.

Returning to the tale of two cities, unlike $79,000 in 2011 Detroit, $30,000 in 2022 San Antonio is not an attractive wage, not even a living wage for one adult with no children and is therefore an insurmountable impediment when it comes to the possibility of attracting new or replacement talent to the San Antonio Symphony.

If the musicians in San Antonio were to agree to the Symphony Society’s current terms, there would be no San Antonio Symphony in the very near future. Key musicians have either already left or are making imminent plans to do so. Replacing them at poverty wages in a geographically isolated city is not going to happen. It isn’t a possibility. We have already had too many no-hire auditions due to the difficulty in attracting qualified candidates to a far-away city with a low salary and a notoriously toxic management.

To the Symphony Society Board and Management, I say this directly: If you are taking advice from anyone based on the historical events of the Detroit Symphony in 2010-2011, you are foolishly spending money to be told fairy stories and untruths. There is no comparison between the two cities, no comparison between the two orchestras (other than the musicians’ common dedication to our art), and no possibility that the outcome in 2022 San Antonio is going to parallel the outcome in 2011 Detroit.

If you continue down this path, you – Corey Cowart, Kathleen Weir Vale, and the rest of the Symphony Society board – are cementing your legacy as the people who destroyed the proud 83-year history of the formerly great San Antonio Symphony.

-Mary Ellen Goree

Principal Violin II

Chair, Negotiating Committee

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