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Flash! San Francisco goes on strike

Tomorrow’s concert is cancelled due to a musicians’ walkout. The orchestra, mourning the death of its principal oboe, William Bennett, has rushed straight into a labor dispute from which there can be no clear winner.

Here’s the release from the management side, just landed. And here’s the background. UPDATE: And you can read the musicians’ statement here.



SAN FRANCISCO, March 13, 2013 – Due to a work stoppage by the musicians of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), the concert scheduled for 2:00 p.m. on Thursday, March 14 has been cancelled and will not be rescheduled.  Patrons can obtain up-to-the-minute information on concerts, ticket exchanges and customer service by calling the Symphony Box Office at (415) 864-6000 and on the Orchestra’s website at 


The Musicians Union of San Francisco, Local 6, American Federation of Musicians, representing musicians of the San Francisco Symphony, have rejected proposals from the Orchestra administration for a new three-year contract that would have kept the musicians among the three highest paid orchestras in the country.  The administration notified the musicians that a revised proposal would be presented Thursday, March 14 but the musicians decided to strike rather than continue negotiations overseen by a federal mediator.


The latest administration proposal offered a minimum base yearly salary of $141,700 in the first year, with multi-year increases to $144,560 by the end of the proposed contract.  During the most recent four-year contract, the musicians’ base minimum pay increased by 17.3%, an average of 4.3% per year.  In addition to the minimum base salary, other musician compensation such as radio payments, over-scale, and seniority raises the current annual average pay for SFS musicians to over $165,000.
The administration’s most recent offer also maintained all current benefit payment levels including 10 weeks paid vacation, a maximum pension of $74,000 annually upon retirement, paid sick leave, and a full coverage health plan with no monthly contribution for individual musicians.



“We are disappointed that the musicians have chosen to strike and deeply regret any inconvenience to our patrons,” said Brent Assink, Executive Director of the San Francisco Symphony.  “We will continue to work hard to develop a fair agreement that gives our talented musicians a contract that reflects our stature as one of the top orchestras in the country but also one that sets a prudent financial course for the future.”


Providing affordable health care options for musicians remains a key goal.   With the rising cost of health care, SFS administration proposed health care plan changes but still offered a health care plan option with no monthly contribution for individual musicians.  The latest proposal also maintained a maximum $74,000 annual pension for retiring musicians, with a slight increase in retirement age to draw full pensions.


In the current economic environment, the San Francisco Symphony is facing the same challenges that other major American orchestras 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.  While concert and related revenues have increased 2.4% compounded annually during the term of the four-year agreement, concert production expenses have increased 8.1% compounded annually.  The Orchestra has incurred an operating deficit in each of those years.


“Many of America’s top orchestras are facing similar challenges with increased concert production, pension, and health care costs currently outpacing revenue growth.  We are developing a multi-year plan to achieve a balanced operating model, including identifying and growing new sources of revenue and at the same time reducing the growth rate of expenses,” said Assink.


As a non-profit organization, the Symphony provides transparency about its finances in fully audited and publicly available documents in accordance with the law.  The administration responded to all of the union’s specific requests for information in a timely manner throughout the negotiations.  Since September, this has included over 50 formal requests for which were delivered over 500 pages of documentation.


Patrons with tickets to the March 14 concert may exchange them for an upcoming concert, may donate their tickets, or receive a refund.

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  1. Robert Fitzpatrick says:

    Let’s hope that there is a “Chicago” solution.

  2. I said it before, but I think this is a PR disaster for the musicians. I know the administration doesn’t look good either, with bonuses to the executive director and poorly timed plans for building renovations. But to go on strike over a one-year pay freeze when their pay is already at the top of the charts and they have fantastic benefits makes them look incredibly greedy. Far lesser orchestras have gone through horrible labor strife that resulted in huge pay concessions, lost jobs, and lost benefits. The general public, even symphony lovers, are unlikely to be sympathetic.

    • Thomas2: I fear that you may be right.

    • Paul D. Sullivan, Boston US says:


      I have to agree also. I had always supported (via donation) my home band, BSO/POPs here in Boston until I no longer could afford to do so (lost my job), but I still maintain a full subscription to show my support. Most steady concertgoers can only dream of this kind of pay and benefit package. I am fully aware of the top notch talent of the musicians and their beef with the management, but still, I think it will only serve to alienate the musicians from the public in general and their concertgoers in particular.

  3. Joep Bronkhorst says:

    As I recall, the last time SF’s musicians went on strike (1997), they eventually got what they wanted. Since they can obviously afford to, what’s stopping them? ;-)

  4. The base salary for the San Francisco Symphony is $141,000. For any organization to strike in a terrible economy when they make this kind of salary, and are not even having their pay cut(!!!!!) is simply absurd. I can’t believe they are doing this. It makes a mockery of the true tragic situations of the players in places like Minnesota and Atlanta, and it makes musicians look monumentally greedy.

  5. Leslie Shank says:

    Before you accuse these musicians of being greedy, check and see what the average cost of a house or an apartment is in the Bay Area compared to other cities. In addition, they are trying to uphold a standard for all trained orchestra musicians who would like to continue dedicating their talents to being orchestral musicians.
    As a member of the St Paul Chamber Orchestra, I support their efforts.

    • Leslie, I don’t think the musicians are greedy, but I do think this makes them look greedy to the outside world. The median household income in San Francisco is $70,770. The San Francisco BASE salary is double that.

      I fully understand holding up a standard for all trained orchestral musicians who are doing an incredibly demanding job and doing it incredibly well, but every single sector of the economy(besides the super-rich, which is another story) has taken a beating in our current economic climate. While the actions of the administrations in Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Atlanta, among others, are detestable, offering a pay freeze for what was a very high salary to begin with does not strike me as draconian. At the very least, it seems to this outsider that negotiations should have continued under threat of a strike rather than actually initiating a walkout which I guarantee will be a PR disaster for the musicians.

      Leslie, I’m so sorry for what has happened to the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and I hope that the situation is resolved absolutely as soon as possible with your orchestra playing as beautifully as they always have.

  6. A major orchestra whose finances are solid sees its musicians strike the week before an east coast tour? Hmmm, where have we seen this before?

    I suspect those in the doom and gloom crowd who wish to talk about what terrible PR this is for musicians would be wise to review how the Chicken Littles fared when Chicago did the same thing last fall. I suspect that, just as in Chicago, SFS musicians want to get this deal done and have picked a moment in their season that they feel is optimal in terms of creating a sense of urgency for management. All too often, management uses “play and talk” as an excuse to “play and stall.”

    Also Waldo, the economy’s not terrible. Can we stop perpetuating that nonsense? The recovery’s been slow, for sure, but the Bay Area’s not hurting, especially those who typically comprise an orchestra’s audience and donor base. The SFS’ finances are just fine. Are you actually suggesting that SFS musicians have an obligation to get screwed by their management out of loyalty to other orchestras whose financial situations may be entirely different from theirs?

    Leslie is precisely right. If this is the track we’re on, where people expect musicians in healthy orchestras to take pay cuts in solidarity with some of their poorly-managed counterparts, we’d simply be charting a path that’s bad for all of us in the long run. That’s true whether you’re playing in an orchestra paying $30k a year and aspiring for something greater, or playing in an orchestra paying $130k a year and fighting to retain the quality of life you’ve established for your family.

    When SFS musicians put their foot down and demand better, they’re not just doing it for themselves. They’re doing it for everyone in their profession. Here’s hoping for a speedy and successful resolution.

    • Sorry, but your assertion that the economy is “just fine” is not really supported by anything. Perhaps you’d like to call the development staff at SFS and explain to them your ideas about how the economy is fine and they shouldn’t worry about raising all that money? And the SFS’s finances are fine other than the fact that they keep running operating losses. That is not really a mark of an organization at the peak of fitness. Also, you refer to a “pay cut” but there is no pay cut involved here, nor do I think it’s fair to call a smaller set of raises than you want “getting screwed” nor does that compromise your quality of life.

  7. The argument that their pay will fall behind Chicago and Los Angeles doesn’t really hold much water. I’d rather see them hammer home the executive raises, building renovation and endowment. Also, why does it take eight months to get to this? What were they doing all that time?

  8. Thomas D says:

    “In addition to the minimum base salary, other musician compensation such as radio payments, over-scale, and seniority raises the current annual average pay for SFS musicians to over $165,000.
    The administration’s most recent offer also maintained all current benefit payment levels including 10 weeks paid vacation, a maximum pension of $74,000 annually upon retirement, paid sick leave, and a full coverage health plan with no monthly contribution for individual musicians.”

    Mama mia, that’s a hell of a package. It’s in the top 3 of the worldwide orchestra musicians salary+benefits scale, yet SF SO is not even among the Top 10 orchestras in the world. Life in SF is expensive, but so is life in other metropolitan areas of the world.
    Some orchestras in the world Top 10 make not even half of what SF SO colleagues are making in average.
    The US is a crazy country. No broad classical music life, but top salaries for a very few musicians.

    • Anonymous says:

      The SFS musicians brought in $72 million dollars and a Grammy award, and were paid $16 million dollars(approximately 21 percent). Where else should the money go?

      The SFS is a financially healthy organization, but musicians are tired of other people getting six-figure raises while they are forced to take a pay cut (cuts in benefits=pay cut). No one buys a ticket to see Brett Assink. They pay to see the musicians of the SFS. Give them the respect they are deserving of.

      • Well, the development staff brought in most of that $72 million dollars, people donate because they love the orchestra but the orchestra does not do the fundraising, nor do they manage the marketing. Also the quote of being paid $16m does not include additional pay, overtime, bonuses, nor any of their benefits or pension contributions, as I pointed out in an earlier post. Their total compensation is probably at least 1/3 if not 1/2 more than that $16m napkin calculation. And it’s disingenuous to call a reorganization of their health plan, for which they pay nothing, a “pay cut.”

  9. Not a Journalist says:

    I wouldn’t focus on the dollars and cents here. Sounds like in this case, and some of the others this season, that the primary issue is a lack of trust in regards to the management side. Musicians like to make money like anyone else, but I have seen musicians take cuts when there was goodwill, teamwork, and an honest dialogue about what’s at stake for the organization (see Milwaukee, etc.)

  10. Bob Burns says:

    As one who cut his “classical music teeth” on the SFS when I was a kid in the 50′s and 60′s and who has watched – quite proudly, mind you – this group ascend to the heights, I’m conflicted.

    Some of my college teachers were members of the SFS who moonlighted as teachers. Moreover, members may still do so, as well as take on private students.

    By any measure, these musicians earn quite good money for their work – especially doing work that they must certainly enjoy. Living in the Bay Area, a place where costs, especially real estate, are ridiculously inflated, does change things a bit but nevertheless, a base wage approaching $175K (average), coupled with the 2-1/2 month vacation, regular increases, totally free medical care – Yikes! Can it get any better.

    Now I am an old, retired senior and I can afford neither a season ticket and barely eek out the wool for 2 concerts a year, for which I must drive 10 hours from Oregon to my beloved San Francisco. I’m certain all these increases will be passed through to old duffers like me who have to make it on a fixed income.

    What a shame. I’m relegated to YouTube and CD’s to hear my favorite orchestra. I, and my fellow “average joes” are the ones who lose out in these deals. We’re priced out of Davies Hall.

    • Anonymous says:

      Bob, any educated professional in the world can moonlight as a teacher. Every school district and college in the country looks for adjunct professors and private tutors in any number of subjects. But only musicians have this held against them in wage discussions.

      • Bob Burns says:

        Perhaps, Anon. If you broke the whole thing down into numbers of hours “at work,” whether practicing, rehearsing, performing, and then factored in teaching…then added up the total compensation, I wonder what the hourly wage would be.

        As I said, I’m conflicted. A talented artist deserves a fair wage indeed. I don’t dispute that at all. What is “fair” perhaps is arguable. But at the end of the day, the proletariet – the po’ folks – who have a desire to appreciate good music, can’t get in the door.

        Orchestras the world over constantly talk about trying to expand their outreach on one hand, while pricing themselves out of reach for all but the well off. I don’t want to get political here but except maybe for SFO and one or two other cities, the audience of middle/upper class subscribers is shrinking, not growing., it seems to me.

        Maybe it comes down to how much financial pain a *potential* subscriber is willing to endure to hear MTT and the SFSO do a couple of Mahler/Bruckner symphonies.

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