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San Francisco Strike Is Latest Orchestra Labor Dispute Playing Out Nationally

March 26, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
The San Francisco Symphony canceled performances and an East Coast tour after musicians went out on strike to demand competitive salaries and benefits. Spencer Michels reports on labor disputes playing out at top orchestras across the country.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next: A strike by a leading symphony is the latest in a string of labor and financial headaches for the nation’s orchestras.

NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels has the story.

SPENCER MICHELS: The San Francisco Symphony, under its conductor and musical director, Michael Tilson Thomas, canceled all its San Francisco concerts for the past few weeks, and called off an East Coast tour that included a performance in New York’s Carnegie Hall.

Instead of performing, musicians milled about in front of Davies Hall in San Francisco and refused to play, until they got a contract that met their demands for higher pay and paid health care benefits comparable to other top orchestras. It was just the latest trouble on the national classical music front.

Since 2002, classical music performances have seen a decline in attendance of 13 percent across the country. Season ticket sales decreased as well, forcing orchestras to market single tickets, an expensive proposition, and to search for new audiences by finding new approaches to concerts.

Last year, Chicago Symphony musicians struck, asking for more pay and better health care. That strike was settled quickly, with modest pay increases, but larger health care payments. In Detroit, the symphony went out for six months in 2011. The musicians finally accepted a 25 percent pay cut. The celebrated Philadelphia Orchestra emerged from bankruptcy protection last year, and still faces financial problems.

In San Francisco, the symphony has seen small increases in attendance and ticket revenue. Donations are also up slightly. But the symphony says its concert production expenses, including musicians’ salaries, are up eight percent a year, a trend they say is unsustainable.

Brent Assink, executive director of the San Francisco Symphony, says tough economic times have impacted all symphony budgets, including his.

BRENT ASSINK, San Francisco Symphony: The general trend that we’re seeing puts enormous pressure on a — on orchestras and other arts organizations, in fact, nonprofits in general.

You will never hear an orchestra management say, oh, we’re sitting on pots of cash, we’re doing just fine.

SPENCER MICHELS: Joshua Kosman has been following all this action, in San Francisco and elsewhere, as the classical music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle.

JOSHUA KOSMAN, San Francisco Chronicle: One thing that they all have in common is the health care costs have been soaring because the health care system is so dysfunctional.

SPENCER MICHELS: Kosman says some orchestras have handled the economic crisis better than others.

JOSHUA KOSMAN: It’s been a sort of a stress test in the sense that orchestras that have their acts more or less together had a rough couple of years, and then kind of came through the other side. Other orchestras found the recession really kind of knocked the wind right out of them.

SPENCER MICHELS: San Francisco may be one of the healthy ones. It is doing well, but not sharing, says David Gaudry, who plays viola.

DAVID GAUDRY, San Francisco Symphony: The budget for the San Francisco Symphony over the last four years, the length of our previous contract, increased by about 29 percent. Now, the musicians’ share of that in wages only increased by about four percent per year. So, in fact, our share of the total budget is shrinking all the time.

SPENCER MICHELS: The 105 members of the symphony earn an average of about $165,000 dollars a year. The union says it’s a little less. They get 10 weeks’ vacation, health care, and a pension. But they say they need more to stay competitive with Los Angeles, Chicago, and other top orchestras.

Those salaries and the strike evoked varying reactions among symphony patrons.

NANCY WATSON, San Francisco: I believe any work is honorable, and if you get over $100,000 dollars, you’re almost in the rich category, according to Obama.

DOROTHY CLUNAN, San Francisco: I think they have the right to strike. It’s a very expensive city to live in, compared to where we live on the East Coast.

SPENCER MICHELS: Bassoon player Rob Weir says his fellow musicians are the cream of the crop and earn every penny.

ROB WEIR, San Francisco Symphony: This is a job where every time we go on stage, we’re judged, and we’re written about, and we’re critiqued. And we hold ourselves to an extremely high standard.

SPENCER MICHELS: Like musicians in other cities, the players here say the symphony organization hides its books, and pays its executives too much.

Conductor Thomas got $2.4 million dollars in 2010, the nation’s top salary for a conductor.

BRENT ASSINK: We’re under some stress, but we are not in jeopardy. And the fact that we’re in San Francisco, one of the wonderful communities for the arts anywhere in the world, and we — the orchestra plays to 8,000 to 10,000 people a week.

SPENCER MICHELS: This week, the only place you could hear them was on the street, where a brass quintet of union members played for free. In the strike, both sides are hanging tough, and no one is predicting how long this work stoppage will last.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Online, Spencer blogs about his own debut at San Francisco’s Symphony Hall as a reporter with a clarinet.