Arts » Arts Stories & Interviews

The symphony hangs on contract negotiations



I remember watching the news one night as a child and hearing a story that caught my youthful attention: San Antonio Symphony musicians were going on strike. I was horrified. What about my field trips? How would I get to Laurie Auditorium for the day and tap my toe quietly to the music, inside my shoe so I didn’t bother the people around me, just like my music teacher told us? How could musicians go on strike? I mean, that was something that happened up North, in auto factories and among garbage collectors in New York. As a wizened grown-up versed in the complexities of both artist and arts organization survival, I’m not so misty-eyed and naïve about it any more. Our Symphony, in particular, has a long history of ups and downs. But it still pains me to think that on September 1 we might be faced, again, with the sounds of silence if musicians and management can’t come to terms on contract negotiations.

The current contract expires on August 31, and negotiations, which seem to have reached an impasse, have been going on since March. Both parties say the talks have been cordial and handled in a committed, professional manner. They’ve come to terms on a number of non-economic issues, including open dress rehearsals, outdoor concerts, and provisions for local TV and radio broadcasts — all intended to raise awareness and enjoyment of the Symphony’s music and its commitment to the local community. The stalemate rests on money.

When the Symphony cut short its 2003 season and declared bankruptcy in 2004, it had a long history of mismanagement, fiscal irresponsibility, and not meeting musician salaries. For the past three years, new management has met budget expenses, paid musicians on time, and provided a relatively stable financial base. The board and President-CEO David Green have managed to rebuild a donor base, make a respectable income from ticket sales and, most importantly, earn the trust of their musicians. But that donor base is still a bit wary. As Green says, “We’re still rebuilding. The previous scenario was donor repellent. Our major funders want us in the black.” Management has successfully paid the bills for three years in a row, and intends to keep it that way — even if that means erring on the side of conservatism.

On the other hand, there’s a point at which you have to take a leap of faith, and the musicians think that time has come. Brian Petkovich, assistant principal bassoon and Chair of the Orchestra Committee representing musicians in the negotiations, says “I don’t think they (management) are giving themselves enough credit for what they’ve accomplished.”

No one can accuse the musicians of not making concessions. They get paid by the week, so when their season was cut from the pre-bankruptcy 39 weeks to the current 26, they took a significant drop in annual salary after a year of no pay. Almost all of them stayed on in good faith, supplementing their income with additional gigs. Many of them have taken advantage of special leave provisions to maintain those outside appearances, which often require significant travel expenses, to maintain their professional careers and to cover living expenses. What the musicians want, simply stated, is a fully professional orchestra, a modest cost-of-living increase, and a commitment from management to add a few more weeks of work to the season. After three years, who can blame them?

Neither party wants a work stoppage. Ticket sales for next season are going well, as are sales and enthusiasm for the first scheduled concert of the year: a special engagement with Itzhach Perlman, possibly the world’s greatest living violinist. What’s now on the table are two versions of a three-year contract that would maintain current positions and gradually add two to four more weeks to the season. Management has agreed to terms that would increase the budget $900,000 over the next 3 years. Musicians argue that if they’re willing to go that far, why not show some faith and commit to their proposal, which would increase the overall budget by $1.4 million over three years. Musicians say some of that would be offset by performance income. Green says he can’t presume to raise that much.

Both parties have extraordinarily valid and conscientious positions. Both are committed to the continued artistic and economic growth of the organization, along with the public service that represents. The question is, how much — and how fast.

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