Week Off for the SFS Musicians, No Break in the Strike

Janos Gereben on March 25, 2013

UPDATE: As of March 27, SFS has changed its scheduling during the strike, and now instead of canceling concerts, the Symphony is rescheduling them.

The March 29 concert with Bernadette Peters is moved to July 3; the March 30 concert with Bobby McFerrin is now scheduled for Sept. 23.

Ticketholders can make arrangements at the Davies Symphony Hall box office or by calling (415) 864-6000. Online, these concerts now appear in the calendar only at the new dates.


As the San Francisco Symphony strike goes into its third week, there are few signs that it is close to a resolution. As this was to be a week of rest for the musicians after the East Coast tour (prevented by the strike), and the next scheduled concert is not until April 5, perhaps there is no sense of urgency, but the deadlock in contract talks should motivate the two sides to make more of an effort.

Even in the midst of conflict, Bruce Roberts' gleaming French horn looks good Photos by Michael Strickland

At the very least, the public expects negotiations to continue, but even that's not a given: No formal talks have been held since the early morning of March 17 when the all-night talks broke down, the federal mediator's cooling-off period plan rejected, and the tour canceled. There is always an outside chance that peace would break out as suddenly as the strike came out of virtually nowhere on March 13, but it's more wishful thinking than reality.

As the musicians are sending out open letters, asking for support, and appealing to SFS board chair Sakurako Fisher, they are receiving encouraging messages from other orchestras, but there is also widespread negative reaction to the strike.

Among the latter, Bloomberg's Manuela Hoelterhoff is "ridiculing sulky strikers" (and receiving a sharp rebuke from Brian Lauritzen; and there is questioning in the otherwise pro-labor SF Civic Center blog of the musicians' "not particularly compelling message".

Sakurako Fisher: board chair, taking over from John Goldman in 2013 San Francisco Symphony photo

In addition to brief comments around the web, there is an expanding discussion of the strike, of the musicians' demand to be the best-paid orchestra in the country, and management's apparent attempts (claimed by the union) to make cutbacks in compensation.

In the matter of pay, the two sides agree, by and large, that the base salary for the 103 members of the orchestra is $141,700, a more contested figure is what management claims to be a $160,000 median and $165,000 average salary, which includes extra fees for recording, overtime, etc. Using the last figure, the SFS payroll for musicians on contract - not including per-session hires) is a whopping $17 million.

And yet, that total is 23.6% of the SFS' $72 million operating budget for 2011 (the last audited budget published), which includes such expenses as the $2.5 million compensation for music director Michael Tilson Thomas, and salaries for a staff of 130.

Only two orchestras in the country had higher 2011 operating budgets than San Francisco: Los Angeles, at $97 million, and Boston, at $84 million. New York ($69m) and Chicago ($65m) were lower, but it is Los Angeles and Chicago the San Francisco musicians claim have higher salaries than theirs.

Nadya Tichman on the picketline

What are the dollar figures involved in the contract talks? The administration originally proposed a three-year contract with no increase in the first year, 1% in the second and third year each. The musicians original demand was for a 5% annual hike, later reduced to 4%. The administration avoided the "pay freeze" situation, a phrase used by the union, switching to a two-year contract with 1% increase after six months, and 2% a year after that, bringing the base salary to $145,979. It is not known at this point if the union changed its demand or accepted the idea of a shorter contract.

The musicians' 10-week paid vacation is not at issue, but details of their health insurance (without premiums until now), and $74,000 annual maximum pension are under discussion.

With the administration's 3% pay increase offer for the life of a two-year contract and the musicians' continued (unconfirmed) demand for 12% total for three years, the dividing gap is a deep one, but dollars alone don't tell the whole story. The Players' Committee has been protesting "draconian cuts," and when I asked spokesman Dave Gaudry how an increase can be called that, his answer was:

A wage freeze year one is unprecedented in San Francisco Symphony history, dating back to before my first year [as a violist in the orchestra], 1982. A pension freeze is also unprecedented. Support from the S.F. Ballet Orchestra

In combination with those two facts, proposed changes in work rules to have musicians working harder for frozen wages adds to the extreme nature of the management position.

Finally, the proposal in health premiums takes money out of musician's pockets. Higher co-pays, deductibles, out-of pocket maxes, eliminating FSA contributions, and increasing by 400% in some cases the premiums paid by musicians, would mean the musician would have as much as $5,000 less at the end of each year.

SFS Communications Director Oliver Theil responded by saying that there is no question of a "pension freeze":

The definition of a pension freeze is when an organizations freezes its pension plan, when its employees covered by the plan stop earning the benefits from the point of the freeze moving forward. This is not the case here.

We are proposing not raising the pension benefit, we are not freezing the plan by any means, the musicians will continue to earn 74,000 a year maximum benefit upon retirement. The term pension freeze is inaccurate in this situation.

Strikers march in front of Davies Hall
Strikers march in front of Davies Hall

Concerning the health plan situation, Theil said:

Three out of four plans [SFS offers] have zero monthly contributions for musicians or their families (which is actually a drop, since in the last contract those plans did have premiums.)

A fourth plan option, a very benefit-rich plan, has higher monthly contributions as the costs for this plan option have gone up substantially over the years. But because we remain committed to affordable plans, we offer the other ones that have no monthly premiums.

So only if a musicians chooses the expensive fourth plan or chooses a lot of out of network care that some plans do not cover, they would then incur any increased costs, but could actually save money if they remain in the three other plan options that have no monthly premiums.

The question of "work rule changes" remains a mystery as the union doesn't specify them, and management claims to have no information about what they may be.