It’s a measure of just how bizarre is the state of labor relations in the orchestra field that only now, months into the most brutal negotiating season in memory, are we seeing the the first “normal” labor dispute - by which I mean a strike (and not a lock-out), not immediately settled (and thus more kabuki than labor dispute), and over positions that one could imagine reasonable compromises could bring together (and not over issues of fundamental job security or economic fairness).
I refer, of course, to the current San Francisco Symphony strike, now well into its 3rd week. Somewhat to my surprise, though, it appears to be over:
Striking members of the San Francisco Symphony reached a tentative agreement Sunday afternoon with the orchestra management on a 26-month contract. Assuming the deal is ratified this week by union members and the Symphony board, it paves the way for concerts to resume in Davies Symphony Hall as early as Tuesday morning.
If this strike had adhered to past patterns, it likely would have gone on another few weeks - historically, orchestra strikes either end really quickly or go on for six weeks or more. So this is good news for everyone.
It’s always dangerous to second-guess managements as competent as the San Francisco Symphony has, or bargaining units as experienced in hard negotiations as are the SFS musicians. But it seemed from the beginning that this strike was a miscalculation on the part of both sides. Obviously the management didn’t want to cancel the East Coast tour (which included an appearance at Carnegie Hall that was one of the more anticipated events of the Carnegie season), and I suspect the musicians thought that, when they struck, management would display more flexibility at the table than was, in the event, demonstrated. A wise labor attorney once told me that a strike threat was a more potent weapon in our field than was the resultant strike, and, once the management accepted the strike and cancelled the tour, the musicians not only lost the power of the strike threat but incurred some very negative press.
The strike also demonstrated how hard it can for musicians in the top orchestras to make a convincing public case for their negotiating position. Even though they had a reasonable case - which was that the institution was doing far too well for them to need to accept raises below likely cost-of-living increases - it was difficult to get that message through all the press coverage of musicians’ salaries and benefits. They tried to solve that problem by borrowing from some other orchestras’ playbooks; most notably Minnesota’s, where the musicians’ calls for a close examination of management’s financial claims has gained real traction. But the two situations were not similar in the ways that counted publicly. Minnesota Orchestra management had been caught brazenly misleading the state government about its finances; all the SFS musicians could claim was a lack of transparency, which is a standard claim in most labor disputes.
The other angle they pursued was the fact that some musicians were leaving for greener pastures. But the poster child for this claim, timpanist David Herbert, had decided to leave in December 2012, and over issues that had very little to do with the collective bargaining agreement:
The work ethic required from every member of the orchestra is enormous and our practice away from the stage is integral to that excellence. Every musician in the San Francisco Symphony spends at least as much time in our personal practice and preparation as we spend with our colleagues in rehearsal and concerts. As Principal Tympani, the arrangements, organization and support needed to arrange on site access to instruments and space in which to practice is a necessity. The management of the Chicago Symphony has recognized this as a given and have done nothing to impede my abilities to perform at the absolute highest level by offering ease and unrestricted access to instruments and consistently reliable space in which to practice at Orchestra Hall.
Again, in sad contrast this has not been the case with the Management of the San Francisco Symphony. While I have had support and as much encouragement from our stage technicians as they could provide under difficult conditions, I have had no cooperation from our management and instead have encountered only a negative attitude with little or no attempts at problem solving. This has exacerbated an already impossibly challenging and unmanageable workplace. I was eventually forced to rent, at my own expense, practice space at another location and to purchase additional instruments.
At that point, SFS management appeared to have lost its patience, and, according to San Francisco Classical Voice, let him have both barrels:
It’s unfortunate that David feels that he was not valued and supported as an artist at the SFS. He is very talented member of the orchestra and when he showed interest in the CSO [Chicago Symphony] position was offered sizeable additional salary and longevity bonus to stay in San Francisco, on top of his current salary of $214,000. To underscore our support for David, he also receives 16 weeks paid vacation a year, six more than most musicians, to pursue personal artistic projects important to him as we greatly value our musicians’ varied artistic interests outside of Davies Symphony Hall as members of our vibrant arts community.
I grew up in the Bay Area, and although it’s changed in many ways, I suspect it’s still not a surprise to the locals when people get better job offers in other cities. San Francisco can be a strangely provincial place. The loss of key musicians can be a good argument for the musicians’ position in a labor dispute - but this was the equivalent of a 80 mph pitch down the middle of the plate to Willie McCovey.
It’ll be interesting to see the details of the settlement. At least on pay, the sides were not that far apart. I’d guess it’ll be in the range of 4-5% over the remaining two seasons. Management was initially proposing 2% over three years, while the musicians proposed 12% over the same period.
In any case, it’s good that it’s over, and apparently with a settlement that both sides can accept without too much pain.