SF Symphony Question: When Is an Agreement Not an Agreement?

Janos Gereben on April 8, 2013
Strike or not? Photo illustration by Jeff Dunn

When is an agreement not an agreement? The short answer: if it's not ratified. The long story, of course, is more complicated.

Whether through impatience or perspicacity, observers are beginning to suspect that the tentative agreement between the San Francisco Symphony and Musicians Union Local 6, announced on Easter Sunday, and halting an 18-day strike ... may be a bit too tentative.

Expect either silence or quick and strong denial from both sides to this report, but what is needed is ratification and lasting peace — lasting, that is, at least during the contract's 26-month term.

First, some background: Nobody is expecting contract negotiations to be conducted in public, myself — having covered a dozen such stories over the years — least of all.

But there is something strange and nettlesome going on in settling the SFS labor dispute, information ebbing and flowing in unusual patterns. First, there were months of total silence about the contract expiring last year, not a word even at the annual SFS meeting.

Then, after the musicians' strike authorization vote (March 7), followed quickly by the March 13 strike declaration, an unusual amount of details about contract issues was released by both sides, each trying to make its case. Then, after the Easter Sunday truce announcement - silence again.

Mind you, journalists have not been trying to find out details of pay and benefit agreements in the contract before it was ratified. No, I know from my own efforts, the simple question was this: when do musicians and the SFS board meet to vote on the tentatively agreed-on contract.

SFS Strike

There was no response at all from the musicians, and SFS Director of Communications Oliver Theil would only say the Board of Governors met on Thursday (April 4), and he doesn't know what the musicians plan to do — reasonably enough.

Still no response from the musicians, but word spread about a Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and maybe a Saturday ratification meeting. Apparently, that either didn't happen or meetings were postponed just before starting it — we don't know.

How and why do we go from disclosure of dollars-and-cents in dispute to stonewalling the information about just the date of ratification meetings?

The first and only reliable information came in an e-mail Sunday evening, one week after announcement of the tentative agreement, in answer to a question to David Schoenbrun, president of Musicians Union Local 6, who apparently is not directly involved in the day-to-day talks. He wrote: "I just heard the rat. vote has been postponed — no new date that I know of, but hopefully within the week."

Ratification of a tentative labor agreement can be a formality or a matter of heated arguments and an up-or-down vote. The last SFS strike, in 1997, ended with a ratification vote of 54-41 — a close one, but deciding the matter. What is unusual and somewhat ominous is continued delay in taking a vote.

Although a matter of speculation, the first and most obvious possible reason for the delay is if the leaders of the negotiating Players Committee are either not recommending approval of the agreement (but then why would they have agreed to the tentative agreement?) or don't have enough votes for ratification.

Equally speculative, a fly on the wall at the SFS Board of Governors' meeting on Thursday might have heard management negotiators recommending ratification to the board, but making it conditional on the musicians approving the agreement first.

The proposed contract remains unsigned, but chances are it will squeak through after a while, perhaps even prodded by the concern now being talked about inside and out of Davies Hall. Some musician friends — in Local 6, but not with SFS — say privately that much of the previous drama and now the ratification delay reflect general unhappiness on both sides, but "basically, it all could have and should have been avoided."