SFS Strike: From Impasse to Deadlock

Janos Gereben on March 20, 2013
Davies Symphony Hall

Before dealing with the bad news (of no news), some perspective and context:

The San Francisco Symphony strike is a week old today, one of its key conflicts is the amount of increase over the musicians' $141,700 base pay. In the Minnesota Orchestra lockout, seven months long if today's announcement of concert cancelations through April holds true, the main issue is a proposed 30% cut in the $109,000 base pay — all figures disputed, of course.

This is in the larger context of orchestra strikes, lockouts, and severe budget problems in Detroit, Atlanta, Indianapolis, St. Paul, Spokane, Philadelphia, Louisville, and elsewhere. What's significant is not the trees of figures, but the forest of arts-financing problems.

In San Francisco, as already mentioned, there is no news, and that's very bad news indeed. Hitting bottom can be viewed optimistically as leaving no other way but up, and that's the only positive consideration of the state of the San Francisco Symphony contract talks. Otherwise, it's just plain dark down there.

Barring a sudden breakthrough, contract negotiations between SFS and Musicians Local 6 have stalled to the point of no formal talks being held — as far as it's known. That qualification is necessary because there is no communication from either side, not even a "no comment" response. Contacts and talk about holding talks are still good, but there is nothing beyond that.

This is in stark contrast with last week when, at the beginning of the strike, musicians and management provided information on request in an unusual diversion from traditional media blackout during negotiations — and the de facto nondisclosure of a contract dispute during the seven months of talks before the strike.

Davies Hall

A contributor to SFS said today that during the Board of Governor's Annual Meeting in December — open to donors, musicians, staff, and the public — nobody mentioned that the collective bargaining contract is being negotiated at all.

More than with the sudden, surprising strike declaration on Wednesday as the musicians gathered for a rehearsal, the current "new reality" began with the wrenching failure of marathon talks on Sunday. According to both sides, the musicians rejected the federal mediator's plan for a cooling off period, which would have allowed the important, long-planned East Coast tour.

Musicians say "the Negotiating Committee met with the orchestra and presented the Federal Mediator’s suggested proposal. After a thorough review of the options, the orchestra voted down the cooling off period. The strike is continuing..." — but no reason is given for rejecting the plan.

Here is the state of the conflict, information based on what is available in lieu of press statements or responses:

Salary and Length of Contract

Musicians of SFS

Instead of negotiating a three-year contract, the latest Symphony offer is for a two-year agreement, to increase the annual base salary from $141,700 to $145,979 at the end of the period. This represents a 1% and 2% increase instead of the originally offered of 0%-1%-1% over three years.

The original union demand was for a 5% increase in each of three years, later dropped to 4%; there has been no response to repeated requests for updating the information about where the musicians stand on the issue now. It is also unclear if they would agree to negotiating a two-year contract. Traditionally, managements and unions have disagreed on length of contracts.

Management claims — contested by the musicians — that additional compensation for most active musicians also includes radio payments, over-scale, and seniority pay which raises the average pay to over $165,000; "average" probably in the sense of adding salaries and dividing by the number of musicians, not the "median" of the pegging the midpoint of compensation. Even such a simple question as that had no response at the latest (and only) management press conference a week ago.

The Negotiating Process


Against the musicians' claim that management has "stalled negotiations," SFS counter-charged on Sunday that there have been "a series of delays by the musicians’ union in working with the administration on an agreement.

"While the administration provided its first proposal October 15, 2012 and offered six subsequent proposals, the musicians’ union did not formally respond to any administration proposal until mid-January 2013. The union did not formally respond to any of this information until just over 60 days ago, weeks after the November 24, 2013 expiration of the four-year contract."

The union has repeatedly questioned if the Symphony is making financial information available, to which management responded that current information is subject to audit before becoming public.

The Symphony's latest offer is to "cooperate with third party financial consultants designated by the musicians to review the audited financial statements... and the opportunity to have two [musicians] join the organization’s Audit Committee of the Board of Governors." Again, no comment from the other side.


SFS claims that it gives and will continue to offer a $74,000 maximum annual pension, 10 weeks paid vacation, and "full coverage health care plan options with no monthly premium contributions for musicians and their families for three of the four options." The union objection is to that new, fourth option, which means contributing to premiums by those who select that company for health insurance. It is not known if there are any changes contemplated in copayments for examinations, lab work, etc. Most health insurers charge steadily — in some cases, steeply — increased copayments, but only premiums seem to be under discussion.

Request to Both Parties

Unless, however unlikely it seems from the outside, a situation exists when media blackout is necessary to conclude a pending agreement, providing information to the media, and therefore the public, would help much needed transparency in this important, ongoing, and probably worsening conflict.