The Worst Way To Begin A Work Stoppage

Granted, there’s no good way to begin a work stoppage but the recent one at the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) is starting off as a text book example for how stakeholders should never approach something like this. If this is all new to you, here’s an overview of the fighting points:


  • The previous master agreement expired in February, 2013.
  • The musicians feel the current zero percent, one percent, and one percent increases to base pay in the latest three year master agreement offer is unacceptable.
  • Musicians claim their health care benefits are being cut but at this point in the dispute, neither they nor management have provided any information that provide enough details to confirm or deny those points.
  • Management says the proposed raises are good enough and the increases over the course of the recently expired contact aren’t something they can continue.
  • Musicians assert the SFS Executive Director, Brent Assink, has received numerous and sizable increases in total compensation as has music director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT).

Let’s break this down into accessible talking points:

  • SFS Executive Director, Brent Assink has done a superb job at maintaining the orchestra’s two decade long growth streak, even in the wake of an economic downturn (some good info on that is available via an article by Janos Gereben in the 3/12/13 edition of the San Francisco Classical Voice). His compensation has never been outrageous compared to other big budget orchestras but his series of compensation bumps over the past several years have been substantial. At the same time, and unquestionably IMHO, he has genuinely earned all of those bonuses and improvements.
  • Arguable artistic issues notwithstanding, MTT has been the right music director at the right time to help propel the SFS to the ranks of top-tier orchestras. Under his tenure, the SFS has grown from an artistic afterthought into an unquestionable destination ensemble known for progressive programs while maintaining traditional standards excellence. His reward has been stacks of cash and generous funding allocations for expensive artistic projects.
  • The musicians have met those challenges every step of the way and have demonstrated, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that they punched above their weight class, so to speak, for a number of years and are something much more than the sum of their parts.

Simply put, they’re all a bunch of deserving winners.

So why on earth did all of these stakeholders decide to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and end up at a point where the best course of action was to take public a fight over who among them gets a larger fork-full of a growing pie amidst an economic downturn.

Tell me ladies and gentlemen of the SFS (and to be clear here I mean board, executive leadership, and musicians), how exactly do you think this will work out for you?

[ilink url=””]Read the SFS statement announcing the work stoppage.[/ilink]

[ilink url=”″]Read the Musician statement announcing the work stoppage.[/ilink]

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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21 thoughts on “The Worst Way To Begin A Work Stoppage”

  1. This post makes me wonder how many orchestras give raises or cut salaries of ALL administrative employees based on the outcome of labor negotiations. For example, if there are salary increases in the musician’s contract, are administrative employees also given raises and vice versa? The article from Management says that musician salaries were increased an average of 4.3% per year in their last contract. Was there a blanket increase given to all administrative staff (not just the CEO)?

    • Those are some great questions and in my experience, most staff cuts come before negotiations and that is, in turn, used as leverage to secure concessions from musician stakeholders. In the worst of situations, cuts are implemented for no other reason than to get a concession (meaning it wasn’t sincerely necessary fro an economic position). But in the end , the concept of shared sacrifice is unfortunately malleable when it usually serves a better purpose when instituted evenly at the same time.

      The part people often overlook in these situation is staffers don’t have any say in how this goes down (other than resigning, which doesn’t do much good in the long run anyway unless a large ratio of staffers leave at approximately the same time) which means it is far too tempting for them to get drawn into all of this in ways they would rarely approve of if anyone asked.

      • This may be an apples-to-oranges comparison. Non-executive administrative staff in any cultural organization is almost always “at-will” and doesn’t ratify a “collective bargaining agreement” that binds it to specific remuneration parameters. Raises among non-artists and other non-union employees are presumed in good faith and typically correspond to estimated annual cost-of-living increases, usually 2-3%. The most common way for a staffer to earn a significant salary boost is through internal promotion or (not unlike the apparent argument offered by striking orchestral musicians) by finding another job with a different employer.

  2. I feel for musicians in many of these work stoppages. It is a last resort for them as they feel powerless. But in this case, I cannot fathom why they would put the organization through this. Third highest paid orchestra musicians in the country, had above average wage increases the last few years, have a stellar CEO who has out-performed all his peers across the country (and kept musicians in employment which is more than can be said at a number of institutions). They make comparisons to the staff — yet they don’t hold up as the musicians probably get a much better pension deal, certainly have much more secure jobs, have 10 weeks(!) paid vacation a year, and can also probably take a sabbatical every few years and walk back into the same position. This situation is a far cry from Louisville, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Philly etc. What am I missing here?

    • One of the missing pieces, at this point, is a decidedly clear set of talking points over why the dispute exists. Both sides seem content with a loose collection of textbook complaints and dancing around what their issues really are.

      It is important to remember that just because someone is paid well doesn’t preclude the presence of legitimate, and profound, problems. At the same time, that level of pay and benefits makes it that much more important to send a clear message explaining what those problems are.

      And demonizing your own employees by attempting to make them appear ungrateful without also acknowledging the grievances is just as big of a problem.

      • After reading about yet another great orchestra putting itself through this torture, I finally convinced myself to respond. As a 10 year veteran as CEO of a regional orchestra, I cannot tell you how deeply I believe these incredibly talented and highly educated musicians deserve to be paid what top-level doctors and attorneys are paid. For most of them, they’re not even close. That said, I participated in contract negotiations virtually sickened by the “row I had to hoe.” It begins with the fact that this country does not value the arts in general and live symphonic music in particular. When one can hear 103 of the most talented musicians in the world LIVE for $15 and still, there are empty seats…My role, for a good part of the time was chief beggar. I never really minded that and was pretty good at it until more and more non-profits moved to town, hi-tech shut down and board members did less, in part, because they had less time. We never had a cushion, so it was hard to take the musical risks musicians wanted. Our staff of five raised a lot of money, but not even close to allow staff or me benefits. I am now retired on social security. Our musician pay was a joke. I knew it and they did too. The answer: one Republicans will not like- more government support. Volunteer contributions cannot sustain our public schools and they cannot sustain our orchestras and still have managements with 30 seconds to think about the future and the vision. Am I dreaming…probably.

  3. Along with your great observations about Assink, MTT, and the musicians, I think it’s important to consider the community as well. San Francisco’s arts community is very active, and the funding is strong. This is a region that actively supports the arts and has been with the SFS every step along their rise over the past 15-20 years. Furthermore, the economy there hasnt been hit as hard as other regions. I feel like that context makes this strike all the more eye-opening: there are so many pieces in place here for success, so it’s such a shock this occurred.

      • Drew is correct that the “half-billion dollar” claim about a long-standing ( idea of a *small* extension to Davies Hall has not been substantiated. On the other hand, the SFS administration is not very forthcoming about plans.

        An important question is if the musicians are opposing a plan on some principle or just want to cut the pie so that their salary-slices are bigger. (Background: the building of Davies Hall 33 years ago helped *create* the orchestra, which was previously a joint organization serving Symphony, Opera, and Ballet in the War Memorial – we now have the rare, and expensive, luxury of three large separate orchestras.)

        When I put the question to orchestra rep Dave Gaudry about the Davies extension, he said:

        “The musicians are in fact supportive of the notion to improve and upgrade the physical environment in which we work and perform, there are many elegant and exciting ideas on the table, and we’re thrilled there are the abundant financial resources to bring this about.

        “On the other hand, to propose a musicians’ contract that is so regressive it will undercut recruitment and lead to more musician-defections to better paid orchestras, while such building plans are in the works, tells us the management of the SFS has completely lost its way.”

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