Nothing Good To Report From San Francisco

Unfortunately, the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) labor disputes continues and in the wake of the East Coast tour cancellation, both sides have been issuing statements attempting to strengthen their respective public positions. Moments after the musicians voted against the federal mediator’s proposed 60 day “cooling off” period, the SFS issued a statement confirming the cancellation of the entire East Coast tour.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the focus of the statement was on the musicians’ decision and restating a general overview of their bargaining position.

Read the SFS Press Statement



Musicians Reject Federal Mediator’s Recommendation for Cooling Off Period

SAN FRANCISCO, March 17, 2013 – The Musicians of the San Francisco Symphony have rejected a federal mediator’s proposal to resume playing concerts during a “cooling off” period while negotiations over the collective bargaining agreement continue. The Symphony’s administration was willing to abide by the federal mediator’s recommendation, based on developments over the past three days of talks.

As a result of the musicians’ continuing work stoppage, the orchestra’s three-city East Coast tour on March 20-23 will not go forward. The tour was set to include performances at Carnegie Hall March 20 and 21, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark on March 22, and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. on March 23. The ongoing five-day musicians’ strike has already forced cancellations of four concerts in San Francisco.

Over the past three days of lengthy negotiations, overseen by a federal mediator, the musicians’ union rejected the latest administration proposals and continued their strike.

Several proposals by the administration have been rejected by the musicians’ union. The most recent proposal offered increases in musician compensation to achieve a new annual minimum salary of $145,979 with annual increases of 1% and 2% for the latest two-year proposal. Contractual benefits also included 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. Additional compensation for most active musicians also includes radio payments, over-scale, and seniority pay which raises the current average pay for SFS musicians to over $165,000.

“We are deeply disappointed that the musicians have continued to reject proposals for a new agreement and that the musicians will not proceed with our planned East Coast tour,” said Brent Assink, Executive Director of the San Francisco Symphony. “We have negotiated in good faith since September, have shared volumes of financial information, and have offered many different proposals that we had hoped would lead to a new agreement by this time. We will continue to work hard to resolve this situation.”

In the current economic environment, the San Francisco Symphony is facing the same challenges that many other orchestras and arts organizations around the country are facing. For all four years of its most recent collective bargaining agreement with its musicians, operating expenses have outpaced operating income. The Orchestra has incurred an operating deficit in each of those years.

As a non-profit organization, the Symphony’s financial statements are audited annually by an independent certified public accounting firm. These statements and related tax filings are publicly available in accordance with the law. Since negotiations began, the administration has been cooperative in sharing financial records and responded to the union’s requests for information in a timely manner. Since September, that includes over 50 formal requests for which over 500 pages of documentation were provided.

The administration has also offered to cooperate with third party financial consultants designated by the musicians to review the audited financial statements. In addition, the administration had offered the musicians the opportunity to have two members join the organization’s Audit Committee of the Board of Governors.

The administration remains willing to continue negotiations with the musicians’ union under the auspices of a federal mediator in an effort to achieve a mutually agreeable contract. The administration will continue to work with the musicians to respond to requests for information, including requests about the Symphony’s finances.

Today’s rejection of the administration’s latest proposal also represents the latest in 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, 2012 expiration of the four-year contract.

Media may contact Oliver Theil, SFS Director of Communications, for more details on the negotiations at (415) 264-1241, by email at, or visit

The statement does not address whether or not the mediator’s proposal recommended continuing the full terms of the now expired collective bargaining agreement throughout the 60 day period or if it contained any changes. I asked Oliver Theil, SFS Director of Communications as well as the musicians’ press representative and Theil provided the following reply (at the time this article was published, the musician representative has yet to reply):

Yes, the federal mediator’s proposed cooling off period would have taken place under the full terms of the expired collective bargaining agreement.

The musicians issued two separate statements; the first via their website was informational in nature and announced their decision to vote against the proposed cooling off period.

Read the Musician Press Statement

For the past four days the SFS Musicians’ Negotiating Committee has been negotiating with the Administration in an earnest effort to reach a deal that would allow the orchestra to leave on its scheduled East Coast tour with concerts at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center. Talks broke down at 4 am this morning. When it was apparent there would be no agreement by the deadline, the Federal Mediator who has been working with the parties for the last several weeks suggested a 60-day cooling off period. The proposed cooling off period required a media blackout but would have allowed the tour to proceed if approved by the orchestra.

Today 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 and we anticipate that the Carnegie tour is now cancelled.

We feel we have done everything we could to work with the Administration to reach a deal that would have allowed the tour to proceed. We are committed to achieving a fair contract that reflects the important role the Musicians play in the continuing success of the organization, and we deeply regret that this dispute has resulted in cancelled concerts for both our local audiences and on the East Coast.

We look forward to performing for our Bay Area audiences soon. Keep checking for further details 

The second statement was from musician spokesperson and SFS violist David Gaudry who presented the same general talking points the musicians have provided since the onset of the work stoppage.

Read the Musician Statement from David Gaudry

MARCH 18, 2013

The Musicians have been negotiating in good faith with Symphony Management to try to reach a deal before the Carnegie Hall tour begins. At 4:30 Sunday morning the talks broke down.

Even though the Musicians believe that the Symphony is in excellent financial condition, they have attempted to address Management’s concerns more than half way. Unfortunately, opportunistically attempting to seize on the misfortunes of other Orchestras, SFS Management continues to insist that the Musicians accept draconian cuts in compensation and benefits and concede work rule changes that would set back by decades the protections in the Musicians’ contract designed to ensure artistic excellence.   They have attempted to justify this policy with talk of “operational deficits” which were largely the self- created results of outsized programming and spending an additional 11 million dollars last year on a Centennial Celebration, providing enormous bonuses and compensation to top executives and consultants and directing resources away from the core mission of the Orchestra. Even with all the additional spending the SFS has experienced significant growth in the endowment, reported a $32 million surplus to the IRS, and is projecting substantial growth in revenue this year.

The Musicians’ concern over vacancies in key positions, defections of their most talented musicians to better paid orchestras and
Managements’ demands for erosion of essential contract protections has them willing to stay out on strike until Management makes a fair contract offer – one fitting for an organization in solid financial condition and that will help to maintain the artistic quality of the orchestra that has taken so long to build.

In the meantime, we continue to believe that Management, especially given the public money it receives, needs to make public the
Symphony’s finances.

All in all, both sides in the dispute appear to be working from a less is more approach when it comes to details; from a historical perspective, it is puzzling to see a work stoppage occur with both sides holding so many cards this close to their chest.

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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19 thoughts on “Nothing Good To Report From San Francisco”

  1. Close to their chests, indeed. The sides seem to be talking about two different orchestras, with very little factual overlap. One side talks of compensation increases, the other of Draconian cuts. Hard to see how both can be true unless the administration is proposing a substantial reduction in the size of the ensemble and/or benefits. Is it?

    With the sparse and non-specific information at hand now regarding proposed changes to the CBA, with references only to increases to what many in the public would consider to be generous minimum salaries, it is very difficult to understand the union’s position, and it will be even harder for the musicians to win over “the hearts and minds” of their audience and donor base. “Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory”, as you have already said about both parties in this embarrassing situation.

    But one of the parties now seems to slipping badly in the PR department.

  2. I’m not an expert in finance or accounting, so I ask this question out of genuine curiosity: is there a difference between operational income and net income? The SFS management claims that operational expenses exceeded operating income, yet the musicians claim that management reported a surplus to the IRS. Is it possible to see an decrease in operating income but an increase in net income, thereby allowing both conditions to exist?

  3. I wonder if the SFO musician’s action was conditioned somewhat by the situation in Minneapolis and St. Paul (and maybe elsewhere, for that matter) in the sense of making them more suspicious of management than they were already. The SFO musican’s have been photographed wearing shirts with a slogan supporting their MO colleagues. Or maybe they are hoping for a quick positive response from mgmt in the manner of what happened in Chicago (especially since an East Coast tour was about to happen). I would bet that the MO musicians would trade Michael Henson and several draft choices to be named later for Brent Assink in a heartbeat.

    • Although it’s probably good to affirm that this is only speculation, even if it were accurate it would be disappointing. In short, the board and executive leadership at the SFS is not the same as the MO and it would be unreasonable for either side to let some other negative labor relationship influence how their organization evolves.

    • “Or maybe [the SFS musicians] are hoping for a quick positive response from mgmt in the manner of what happened in Chicago”

      Except that, if memory serves, in Chicago it was the musicians who caved – partly, I gathered at the time, because they found that they had little support from the public.

      That was, of course, very different from the situation in the Twin Cities, where public sentiment seems to be heavily on the musicians’ side.

      I’d almost wonder if the Chicago and SF musicians don’t quite get the difference in the public’s mind between a strike and a lockout – but the players couldn’t really be that myopic, could they?

      • Emily, do you seriously think that folks in the Twin Cities would be every bit as angry at MinnOrch and SPCO management if it were the musicians who were refusing to let the concerts happen rather than the managers locking the players out?

        In public perception, there’s a huge difference between workers refusing to go to work – even if their strike is entirely justifiable – and management refusing to let willing workers show up and do their jobs.

      • And, in case I wasn’t clear, my point was less about what the public thinks than what the CSO and SFS musicians might appear to believe the public thinks.

        William Stahl was suggesting that the SFS musicians’ decision to strike right before an important tour was influenced by the situations at the MinnOrch and the CSO.

        The MinnOrch situation is an outrageous lockout that has almost everyone who’s paying attention furious at management. The CSO situation was a strike, declared right before a tour, that was quickly abandoned – largely, it appeared, because the public thought the CSO musicians were being entitled, petulant and greedy and thus didn’t rally to the musicians’ side as happened in the Twin Cities.

        If Mr. Stahl is correct, that would indicate that the SFS musicians genuinely didn’t see the difference between the MinnOrch lockout (with draconian sacrifices demanded of the musicians) and the CSO strike (the best-paid orchestral musicians in the hemisphere choosing an especially critical time to demand more).

        Myopia that severe wouldn’t be unheard-of among orchestral musicians – one has to have some tunnel vision (to mix visual impairment metaphors) to do the job – but it would be very worrisome.

      • I have no data one way or another, so any opinions I hold on the matter are mere gut instincts. *shrug* Patrons were pretty outraged about Detroit, and that was a strike. I do know that a huge number of people don’t even know that the lockouts in Minnesota are lockouts, for what that’s worth. Google Minnesota Orchestra and the suggestion is “Minnesota Orchestra strike.”

  4. Unfortunate indeed, but I am not seeing evidence of much rationality here–especially, in this case, on the side of the musicians. If touring is important for your brand and reputation, you don’t throw it away in a snit, which is what the SFO musicians seem to have done. They could have just as easily done the strike after the tour.

  5. Jumping on Mr. Stahl’s last point, the musician’s decision to reject the “cooling off” proposal seems completely irrational and can only hurt them. We the public will probably never know the full details of what’s occurring at the bargaining table, so all we see is the musicians declining the opportunity to get all their current pay and benefits (plus per-diem and other compensation that comes with touring) to play at Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, and the NJ PAC. And this wasn’t an offer from management they rejected, but from the federal mediator. It’s tough to fathom how one could make that decision.

    Seems to me that maybe the union got backed into a corner in the negotiations. They’ve been pushed to the edge of what they will accept, and now their only recourse is a scorched earth approach. Perhaps what would resolve this is finding a face-saving concession that management can give, so the union can show the musicians that the final agreement wasn’t too one-sided.

    • Those are good observations Darren although there’s one point at the end worth addressing and I see people getting caught in this bear trap all the time. Specifically, perceiving the union and the musicians as mutually exclusive entities.

      Since the 1960s, there distinction between the union and the musicians began to decline; in the realm of collective bargaining, orchestra musicians are unique compared to other unionized workers in that they secured the right to control the actual bargaining process. They elect their own representatives who not only attend all of the bargaining sessions but are tasked with the responsibility of crafting negotiation strategies, selecting an attorney and/or negotiator to work with, etc.

      As it stands, it’s far more common for the local union president to sit out during bargaining sessions and most negotiation committee meetings than not. Consequently, I think your face saving observation is very much on the mark, but rather than the perspective of the union needing to save face with the musicians it is more along the lines of all SFS stakeholders save face by their willingness to defuse what is becoming an unnecessarily volatile situation.

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