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Grieving orchestra votes to strike

Days after the tragic death of principal oboist William Bennett, musicians of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra have voted unanimously for an all-out strike unless progress is made in their contact talks.

The players, who have been out of contract for a month, are facing demands for cuts in medical benefits and a freeze in pay. They argue that a company which has embarked on a half-billion dollar construction program can surely afford to cover the health of its musicians – a claim which is given added poignancy by the recent tragedy. They also complain that key players are being enticed away by higher pay at rival orchestras.

Here’s their side of the story:


(UPDATE: You can read the management side here).

For Immediate Release          March 7, 2013

San Francisco Symphony Musicians Unanimously Vote to Authorize Strike In Advance Of East Coast Tour

Vote Comes One Day After Musicians Call on Management to Open All Financial Books, Which Has Yet to Happen

San Francisco, CA- Last night the Musicians of the San Francisco Symphony voted unanimously to authorize a strike if contract negotiations with management continue to stall. Management is seeking freezes in Musicians wages and pension, and cuts in medical benefits, while the Musicians have proposed an agreement that will maintain the excellence of the Symphony and help to compete directly with their higher-paid peers in Chicago and Los Angeles.

Yesterday, the Grammy-Award winning musicians, who have been negotiating for eight months and performing without a contract for thirteen weeks, called for management, which has awarded itself significant raises and is pursuing a building expansion at a cost of more than half-a-billion dollars, to once and for all publicly open its financial books in an attempt to get a clear understanding of the Symphony¹s financial picture, including how Management allocates the $2.6 million of public money it receives. The musicians have set next week as the deadline to get a deal done, which is when the Symphony will embark on a high profile tour of the East Coast, including Carnegie Hall in New York City and the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. The Musicians have never left on such a tour without a contract.

“Given the amount of tax-payer funding involved, the Musicians and other stake-holders deserve to have all the financial documents open to the public so we can understand how Symphony executives can on one hand be giving themselves significant raises and embarking on massive spending programs while on the other hand be asking the Musicians to make major sacrifices,” said Dave Gaudry, Chair of the Musicians’ Negotiating Committee. “The Musicians of the San Francisco Symphony just won our fifteenth Grammy, but our ability to continue to be a top tier symphony and compete against Chicago and Los Angeles will be directly impacted if Management continues to pursue an agreement with such draconian cuts.”  The musicians contract expired on Sunday, February 10th, the very same day the Symphony won the Grammy Award for Best Orchestral Performance of 2012. With an endowment that has increased in value by 83% over the last ten years and currently approaching $300 million, the San Francisco Symphony has the second largest endowment of any symphony in the country.

Management has rewarded itself with salary increases substantially greater than provided for musicians; has developed plans to embark on a major redesign and renovation of the Davies Symphony Hall at a cost of up to a half billion dollars; and has increased the budget $11 million over last year for a Centennial Celebration party — while demanding a wage freeze and calling for increasing the costs to be borne by the musicians, including benefit reductions.

In their letter to San Francisco Symphony Executive Director Brent Assink yesterday Tuesday, the musicians said, ‘We fear that Management has lost sight of its mission. If the Symphony is financially strong enough to pursue a renovation of up to half a billion dollars in the name of providing a world class venue and can increase the compensation of top Management in order to maintain world class managerial talent, it certainly ought not to be seeking to reduce the compensation and benefits of the working Musicians.

‘Management asserts that the wage freeze and benefit reductions are needed because of the financial condition of the Symphony, but they refuse to be transparent about the Symphony¹s finances. Musicians have asked for specific information related to how Management allocates resources, including the relationship between the endowment and budget, the amount spent on programming and where the public money is spent, including a breakdown of how management spends the approximately $2.6 million in public support provided to the Symphony.

‘The musicians stress the importance of agreeing to a contract that enables the symphony to maintain its status as one of the top orchestras in the country. The letter to management states that the contract must preserve our ability to continue our artistic excellence including the capacity to compete with our already higher paid peer orchestras such as the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony, both of which operate in cities with significantly lower costs of living. When it comes to attracting and keeping the musical talent needed to maintain the artistic quality of the orchestra and earn future Grammy Awards, San Francisco’s extraordinarily high cost of living and our lower compensation already make us vulnerable, even without adopting the regressive contract terms you have proposed. As you are well aware, next season we are losing a world class timpanist, David Herbert, to Chicago, which would be like the San Francisco Giants losing Buster Posey to the Dodgers. The Giants have won two World Series in three years not because they had a world class stadium to play in, but because they had world class talent.

‘The Symphony’s endowment has increased in value by 83% over the last ten years as more than $145 million in new endowment and special programming funds were raised during the period encompassing the greatest recession since the great depression. In the ten-year period from 2001 through calendar year 2011 top symphony leadership received salary increases in amounts substantially greater than the increases provided for musicians. The salary for the Executive Director increased by 79% — over 50% more than the increases for the Musicians over the same time frame. According to the latest IRS 990 forms, in 2010 the Music Director was paid $2.4 million, 18.5 times more than the guaranteed base pay for musicians. The San Francisco Symphony increased its budget by almost $11 million last year for the Centennial Celebration party. The improvements that the Musicians are seeking in the next contract will cost less than the Centennial Celebration cost.’


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  1. I’ve wondered what sort of money orchestra’s own record labels are pulling in. Are musicians in SF, Chicago, Boston, NY making any substantial money from these recordings or are they mostly funded by donors and done more for the prestige of the orchestra? The SFSO Mahler cycle recordings were reported to have sold very well, but I don’t recall exact numbers. Are they making more now from these self-produced recordings than when they recorded for RCA, Decca, Philips, etc?

    • Recordings are very often funded by donors and do not net significant income except in rare instances. I don’t know about SFS specifically.

  2. A strike authorization vote is not a vote to strike. It is a tool for the negotiating committee to use in negotiations, or, if you prefer, a weapon. If the talks stall, the negotiating committee now has the ability to call a strike without taking the question to the body of membership for a vote, but to say that the musicians have voted to strike is misleading and inaccurate.

  3. This one will be interesting. The San Francisco Symphony has a large endowment and the musicians’ salaries have, up to now, been in part protected because so many seats in the orchestra, and not just the first chairs, have themselves been separately endowed. The San Francisco financial community and the orchestra’s billionaire donors are strategic thinkers and very powerful, and also like to be taken seriously, and many often accompany their orchestra’s national and international tours. This is also their baby and fiefdom, so one wonders what will happen if the orchestra strikes. There seems to be a disconnect between the huge capital costs and the cuts in medical benefits, and the tragic passing of Mr. Bennett has set this in sharper relief, though for an outsider it is hard to know if the cuts would affect the care for serious conditions, or how they would dovetail with Obamacare. As for the salaries, according to the article they are not being cut, only frozen. So, this is not quite the same as the egregious position the Minneapolis Symphony players have found themselves in. Moreover, the SFO ain’t the CSO or BSO yet, and while summertime in San Francisco can be chilly, the livin’ there is easy.

    • Terry Carlson says:

      Founded in 1903 as the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, the orchestra changed its name to the Minnesota Orchestra in 1968, about 45 years ago. Many of us wish that had never happened but, at this point in time, it’s water over the dam.

    • While the “livin” might be easy in SF, it is also extremely expensive, something that has kept this musician from even considering a move.

      • Nothin’ easy ’bout livin’ in the City. The astromonical cost of housing keeps many from living in the City which in turn spells long commutes. Don’t mess with the Orchestra. Besides the award-winning SFS get off the hook easily with a Chorus of mainly volunteers! How ridiculous it that? But singers love to sing for free so they get what they deserve. Orchestra musicians understand and respect their talent and level of committment and expect to be recompensed appropriately.

      • Agreed, but I know both sides of the coin having worked and lived there or owned for 20 years though the 2008 crash, including carrying tenants who lost their business.

        • Agreed that it is expensive- though New York is as well. Not agreed that the life style is not easier or less pressured- it is, and one can get spoiled by it.

  4. The entitlement mentality of people in this country boggles my mind. No one owes you a job. No one owes you healthcare. No one owes you anything. If you are not getting what you want or need from your current employer, go elsewhere. (As apparently some of these musicians have done)

    • Amy Adams says:

      @Dave, I think I understand what you’re saying…but you’ve drawn a gigantic (thus inaccurate) circle around this particular topic, and in doing so have assigned imaginary intent to these musicians. I highly doubt that they feel they are owed a job. In fact, each musician has individually sacrificed and worked extremely hard to get where they are today. They are at the top of their game.
      Lumping these particular musicians with imaginary entitlement-junkies does a disservice to the facts, the issues at hand.

    • How is negotiating a contract “entitlement”?

      People who complain ad nauseam about others’ entitlement only ever look down the chain. What about the entitlement of managers who repeatedly vote themselves raises, yet refuse to explain where the money–including significant public funding–goes? How is keeping the organization’s finances secret just fine, but negotiating for benefits is egregious? Let’s talk about transparency rather than entitlement, because it’s far more applicable to this situation.

  5. The behavior of SFS’ management seems to reflect a tragic disconnect built in to the American psyche. I mean the entrenched distrust and fear of artists that has been an element of our cultural history from the start. Whatever the reasons for this anti-artist prejudice, it cripples our society. I won’t rehash the many colorful illustrations of the gap between the levels of US arts funding and those of almost all other industrialized nations. The real irony here is that even when an arts organization beats the odds and achieves fairly stable and secure financial support, the artists who make the organization what it is still have to fight for their livelihood. I worked in non-profit theatre for 34 years, until chronic underfunding forced the closure of the company I cofounded. The prevailing attitude that artists are not really contributing members of society and don’t deserve to earn a living from something as frivolous as art must change. It’s up to those true lovers of music, theatre, painting and all the other forms to change the narrative. The old story of the ne’er-do-well “artiste” who’s simply a grifter or charlatan has to be supplanted with a more accurate narrative that fully honors the very real gifts art-makers give us.

  6. I Am A Musician.

    Orchestra management’s sole purpose is to bring in money for the orchestra’s musicians and figure out the mundane logistical crap so that the musicians can focus on honing their skills to deliver the highest possible art. Why else would we have management? If they make the musicians rich, they can share in that prosperity. But why the fuck do they think they are so important, while we are expendable? Why can’t we fire them and cut their pay instead of the other way around? Who the hell gave them so much power? Do they really have the power we think they do? Didn’t we give it to them? Why not take it away? Why not fire every last one of them? They are not arbiters of excellence, nor artists themselves, not have they any business making decisions for us or telling us what to do. They are nothing but leeches, a cancer, a malignant growth on the lungs of the greatest and most fragile of the arts. All they want to do today is destroy the meager prosperity of working artists, an enrich themselves in the process. But the money they make comes directly from the good warts of art lovers, and they are being betrayed! Patrons donate to the *arts, not the the arts managers. These managers should be thanking us for providing them with a job, and not be cutting our pay and benefits and forcing us to beg and plead for crumbs! The system is broken!

  7. This is going to be a public relations disaster for the players. Whatever your personal opinions about what top musicians ought to be paid – I don’t think the pay at SF is unreasonable by any means – going on strike because of a one-year pay freeze when your pay is $140K+ and you have ten weeks paid vacation, platinum health coverage, and a guaranteed pension makes you look as clueless as it gets. And to call it “draconian”! It’s gobsmacking how tone-deaf a musicians union can be.

    Musicians need to understand that people outside the classical music industry – meaning, 99.9% of people – truly don’t get why their jobs pay so much. (To say nothing of the administrators salaries, but that doesn’t get the players off the hook.) Especially in the wake of other orchestras whose recent labor strife involved huge pay cuts, positions eliminated, health care whittled away, and performances canceled.

    Also, reporting on this has referred to “changes” in benefits. I wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that this means “cuts” just because the players’ press release uses that word. And in my opinion, bringing poor Mr. Bennett into that conversation is a bit tasteless.

  8. So even though the musicians don’t state it as such (and who can blame them) if you do the math according to the figures they present about the Director of Music, the guranteed BASE pay for a musician is $130,000 a year. Really? … And their salary increase has been something on the order of 30%. Unbelievable.

    This is being treated unfairly? Because I know plenty of orchestra musicians and on a rough week, they maybe put in 20 hours a week – much less on average. I can’t see how/why I would side with their complaints as a taxpayer. If anything, I now wholly side with management.

    Let them strike, but please also consider just cutting them altogether. We can use that money better elsewhere. Even the architectural project at half a billion is better spent than giving these people an even easier lifestyle. Let them work for a living.

    • Anonymous says:


      No orchestral musician works only 20 hours a week. Anyone with this opinion clearly has no knowledge of the music business and is thus hardly qualified to comment on these matters.

      Your tax dollars are, largely, not supporting the San Francisco Symphony. I don’t know the specifics of the SFS finances, but the amount of public funding that makes up any performing arts organization’s budget is miniscule. So don’t worry–you personally are not supporting the SFS in deed or thought. You must sleep better knowing this.

    • Amy Adams says:

      @John –
      Philistine – a person who is guided by materialism and is usually disdainful of intellectual or artistic values
      – one uninformed in a special area of knowledge
      - a person who is hostile or indifferent to culture and the arts, or who has no understanding of them

      • @Amy-
        Spoiled Brat – a musician who makes $130,000 a year and whines because their pay is frozen and some other musician somewhere else is making more than them.

        • Anonymous says:


          Spoiled brat: an executive director who makes 600k+ a year and thinks that someone who makes 140k is overpaid.

          • Steve de Mena says:

            Maybe that $600k/year director is an effective fundraiser and brings in donations that justify their salaries. That’s how I have viewed high salaries for those running large cultural institutions.

  9. Ned Kellenberger says:

    I do not know about the details of the medical coverage or other benefits the musicians wish to receive, but out of an endowment of 300 million, it seems reasonable that the actual orchestra, the musicians, could receive a bigger cut. If the musicians received $200,000 each, their salaries would still make up only 6 to 7% of that endowment. For being some of the best players in the world, with the lifetime of hard work plus tons of investment at top institutions and conservatories and summer festivals, plus the high costs of instruments of bows, which often cost tens of thousands of dollars not to mention the cost to maintain them, plus the ridiculous costs of living in the Bay Area, plus the constant accountability in every rehearsal and performance by the pressures within the orchestra by peers and the conductors, and pressures from both critics and music lovers in the community and around the entire globe… Having to be in performing shape year round both mentally and physically… And people are upset that they might make enough to maintain a middle class lifestyle, which is difficult to do in these times.

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