San Francisco Symphony musicians are on strike, threatening tour

The San Francisco Symphony’s musicians are on strike, leading to the cancellation of Thursday’s scheduled performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony and the first in a series of rehearsals for a three-city East Coast tour scheduled to begin March 20 at New York City’s Carnegie Hall.

The tour, which features soloist Yuja Wang on piano and also includes performances in Newark, N.J., and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., is in jeopardy, as are three additional Mahler performances this weekend at the orchestra’s own Davies Symphony Hall.

David Schoenbrun, president of the American Federation of Musicians Local 6, which represents the San Francisco Symphony musicians, said they had resolved not to rehearse for the tour until a new contract is in place. The old contract expired in November, and an agreed-upon temporary extension lapsed Feb. 15, he said.

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Schoenbrun said orchestra management’s most recent offer -- three years with no increase in the first year and one percent raises in the two subsequent years -- was unacceptable given such signs of prosperity for the orchestra as plans to renovate Davies Symphony Hall, spending $11 million during a season-long celebration of its 2011 100th anniversary, a $250,000 two-year bonus for its executive director, Brent Assink, and the high salary paid to music director Michael Tilson Thomas.

The orchestra’s most recent public tax return shows Thomas earned $2.41 million in 2010, the nation’s top conductor salary.

Schoenbrun said San Francisco Symphony musicians’ goal is “maintaining parity with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Chicago Symphony,” as one of the nation’s three highest-paid orchestras. Another problem, he said, is proposed changes in work rules that would be “not to the musicians’ advantage,” and a freeze on pension benefits. The musicians said in a statement that they have asked management to open its financial books.

San Francisco Symphony spokesman Oliver Theil said Wednesday that the musicians would have remained the third-highest paid -- behind the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Chicago Symphony-- under the offer that called for an aggregate 2% raise over three years. He said the offer would have maintained the current pension ceiling of $74,000 a year that is paid to players who qualify for the top tier in service tenure and retirement age.

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The orchestra had informed the union Tuesday it would have a new contract proposal ready Thursday, “but rather than wait, the union decided to strike today,” Theil said.

In a news release, the orchestra said its most recent offer called for an increase in the base minimum salary from $141,700 to $144,560 over the three years. It said that musicians' actual average pay is more than $165,000 a year because of extra compensation for seniority, broadcasts and other factors.

During the previous four-year agreement, the orchestra said, its concert production expenses grew more than three times faster than its concert revenue.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s current four-year contract with its musicians expires Sept. 15. Vincent Trombetta, president of Musicians Local 47 in Los Angeles, said talks for a new contract are expected to begin in late spring or early summer. The current contract, which went into effect in the fall of 2009 during a deep recession, called for a 17% raise in musicians’ minimum base pay over the four years, to the current $148,720.

The L.A. Phil contract covers 103 instrumentalists, two music librarians and an orchestra personnel manager. Musicians pay $10 a week toward their health insurance if they choose a preferred provider option rather than an HMO, rising to $20 weekly if insurance costs grew by 30% or more during the four years.


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