More concerts have been canceled as tensions escalate between musicians and management of the San Antonio Symphony.

“Russian Masters” on Nov. 19-20, “Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto” on Nov. 26-27, and “Holidays at The Majestic” on Dec. 18 have all been canceled by the Symphony Society of San Antonio, the board that oversees the orchestra’s operations.

According to Symphony spokesperson Kimberly Maldonado, “San Antonio Symphony Box Office representatives will contact all ticket holders directly over the phone in the coming days to ensure they understand next steps and all ticketing options.”

Following the Sept. 27 declaration of a strike by the Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony, the season-opening concerts of Oct. 28-29 and Nov. 5-6 were also canceled, with musicians periodically leafleting and picketing outside their main performance venue, the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts.

The dispute deepens

The latest development in the ongoing dispute is a charge by the Symphony Society filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on Oct. 29, alleging bad-faith bargaining by the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) Local 23, which represents the musicians in contract negotiations for the national union.

The Symphony Society’s charge follows an earlier NLRB charge filed by AFM Local 23 on Oct. 25, alleging that the Symphony Society has engaged in unfair labor practices and bad-faith bargaining. When management informed the union it was canceling musicians’ health and other benefits on Oct. 28, the union added “Repudiation/Modification of Contract” to its earlier charge.

John Ferguson, the attorney representing orchestra management, said the Symphony Society’s charge is not a counter-charge but is wholly independent of the union’s earlier charge.

“Even if the union hadn’t filed their charge, I think the symphony probably would have filed their own,” Ferguson said.

A major part of the charge alleges that the union did “not [live] up to the letter and spirit of the parties’ agreement to first attempt to use interest based bargaining,” and refused to accept mediation by Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service commissioners.

Interest-based bargaining (IBB), also known as mutual gains bargaining, is a negotiation strategy meant to avoid adversarial bargaining, opting instead for “consensus-seeking and cooperative” negotiations.

David Van Os, attorney for the musicians, said mediators present for the earlier IBB negotiation sessions showed bias toward management, in part because the musicians were not allowed to focus on the 80% pay cuts they had endured during the height of pandemic cancellations in 2020.

“When we were trying to explain the background leading up to here, one of those mediators told us that that was just all baggage and that she didn’t want to hear about it,” Van Os said.

“They want a mediator so badly, that they must think that a mediator will convince the union to agree to their demands,” he added.

‘Rocks in their head’

The Symphony Society charge further accuses the union of negotiating in bad faith, refusing to continue negotiations, and imposing conditions for a return to bargaining.

Van Os called the charge an attempt to deflect attention from the union’s earlier charge. “If they’re charging us in bad faith, they’ve got rocks in their head.”

The union has called for management to rescind the contract imposed on Sept. 26 before negotiations can continue. The contract matches management’s “last, best, final offer,” which reduces the number of full-time musicians in the orchestra from 71 to 42, fills 26 other positions with part-time musicians, and makes drastic wage cuts of 33% for full-timers and what union members have described as “poverty level” annual wages of $11,000 for part-timers.

Van Os said the two sides met last week for a grievance session outside the formal negotiations, and the union told management “if you will withdraw that [last, best, final offer] label … and if you will agree to rescind the unilaterally imposed conditions, we will be happy to come back to the bargaining table. But we’re not going to do it unless it’s on an equal playing field.”

Ferguson, once an attorney for the NLRB in the 1980s, said, “that’s not the way it works in bargaining. We’re not asking the union to call off their strike as a condition to return to the table.”

He said management might well be willing to move away from its last, best, final offer, but nothing can be determined until the two sides return to negotiations.

“We’ll consider all proposals … and hopefully arrive at some kind of mutually agreeable contract. Both sides are going to have to move — the Symphony realizes that they may have to move from their last best and final. … They may very well move. But we won’t know that until we get to the table and negotiate.”

The law is clear, Ferguson said. “You can’t condition bargaining.”

Ferguson said the imposed contract applies only to the third year of the original three-year contract negotiated in 2019 and does not bear on future contracts. But Van Os said agreeing to the imposed contract terms for even the remainder of the 2021-2022 season would prove disastrous for the symphony.

“We believe that we would never be able to get the symphony to get off of them if we agreed to them. They are completely intolerable. They will destroy the San Antonio symphony,” Van Os said. “And it looks to me like right now, the board is trying to destroy the symphony. This is their doing, and it will be their historical legacy.”

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with an indie rock...