Davies Symphony Hall
An empty Davies Symphony Hall as SF Symphony performances made a slow return after the worst of the pandemic | Courtesy of SF Symphony

In every labor dispute, there are conflicting claims, but in the case of the San Francisco Symphony’s current contract negotiations, there is one indisputable fact: The orchestra’s musicians are about to reach their 300th day of working without a contract.

And for musicians, working entails not just performing but innumerable hours spent learning, practicing, and rehearsing music, as well as dealing with health and instrument problems before appearing onstage.

The SF Symphony musicians’ collective bargaining contract expired on Nov. 26, 2022, and they will hit day 300 on an important date: the opening of the orchestra’s 112th season, Sept. 22 at Davies Symphony Hall.

Negotiations began over a year ago, going into formal sessions on Sept. 15, 2022, ahead of the contract’s expiration, with the Musicians Union Local 6 representing the SFS players. But to date, there is nothing known to have been settled, except for health care provisions.

Matthew Spivey
SF Symphony CEO Matthew Spivey | Credit: Cody Pickens

Contracts have also lapsed this year with the American Guild of Musical Artists, covering SF Symphony Chorus members, and with the Theatrical Employees Union, Local B18, of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and Moving Picture Machine Operators of the United States and Canada, covering ticket service employees and ushers. Those agreements expired on Aug. 31 and May 31, respectively.

Besides the length of the contract stalemate, something else is unusual in the situation: the lack of communication — with a few exceptions when prompted by the media — from both the SF Symphony and the musicians’ union.

SFS President Priscilla B. Geeslin, CEO Matthew Spivey, and other administrative staff members have not spoken publicly of the situation. Responses to press inquiries have come from the public relations department.

In previous labor conflicts, claims, counterclaims, and threats of a lockout or strike were closely followed by action. None of that is happening now. It’s almost as if there was a tacit understanding between management and the union to keep the dispute from the public.

The contrast with past combativeness is even greater now, considering the current landscape of conflicts between corporations and unions as the post-COVID economy has boosted owner income and profits and left workers behind.

Among the top headlines are the monthslong work stoppage by Hollywood writers and actors, the unprecedented United Auto Workers’ strike against all three major Detroit vehicle manufacturers, and the threat of a strike by 60,000 health care workers in California, Oregon, and Washington against Kaiser Permanente. The musicians of The Philadelphia Orchestra have authorized a strike as contract talks continue there.

When there was finally word about the SF Symphony stalemate last week, it didn’t come from the Local 6 but from the musicians themselves. They published their letter to the SFS board on Facebook and other places online. Read the full document here.

SF Symphony
Winds and brass of the San Francisco Symphony | Credit: Brandon Patoc

One of the writers of the letter summarized the musicians’ main points in a Facebook post:

In short:

— Endowment: over third of a BILLION dollars

— Administration salaries: fully restored

— Musicians receive a $14 raise (that’s right, $14) since 2018

— Principal/titled musicians continue to have massive overscale cuts for 3 years

Verifying the fiscal figures here, or those in statements from the administration, is difficult because there is an 18–24-month delay between 501(c)3 nonprofit organizations’ fiscal reports and IRS publication. The most current report available for the SF Symphony’s finances covers the season between Sept. 1, 2021, and Aug. 31, 2022. There’s also the IRS 990 form for fiscal year 2021.

The latest published information lists the SF Symphony’s gross receipts as $82,712,112 and its endowment total as $429,119,299.

SF Classical Voice forwarded the musicians’ letter to SFS public relations and received this response on Sept. 15:

“The San Francisco Symphony is continuing to meet and work with our union partners to develop a fair agreement that recognizes the musicians’ stature as one of the top orchestras in the country, and one that does not compromise the future artistic quality or financial sustainability of the institution.

“We hope to have an agreement in place soon, and, when appropriate, the San Francisco Symphony will release more information. Out of respect for the process, we cannot comment on the status or progress of negotiations.”