Valentine’s Day might hold the key to the future of the San Antonio Symphony.
More than four months into a strike that has caused concert cancellations and postponements , symphony musicians and management have scheduled a negotiation session for Feb. 14 that will include a mediator.
Previously, the union had rejected mediation, saying federal arbritrators involved in early contract discussions last summer seemed weighted toward management’s position.
David Van Os, legal counsel to the union that represents the musicians, said in November that a mediator would be accepted by the union only if the Symphony Society of San Antonio rescinded its “last, best, final offer” of Sept. 26, which imposed new contract terms that would reduce the number of full-time musicians, introduce part-time musicians and reduce pay for all.
The union responded to that offer by declaring a strike Sept. 27. Both sides have filed charges of unfair labor practices with the National Labor Relations Board. Those investigations continue.
Negotiations have since occurred only sporadically as musicians mounted protests at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, where they would normally be performing four months into their 2021-22 concert season, and at the homes of Symphony Society board Chair Kathleen Weir Vale and Corey Cowart, the orchestra’s executive director.
Management has not rescinded its imposed contract, but Van Os said the union “changed the landscape” of negotiations with a Jan. 6 proposal for a truncated concert season under the terms of the prior contract.
Management responded a week later requesting the proposal in writing, which was delivered the following day. The musicians have since interpreted the lack of a counter-proposal by management as a rejection of its offer.
Cowart has maintained that management has not responded officially to the union proposal of restarting the season.
Could the Feb. 14 negotiation session heal the split between the two sides?
“We are hopeful because we … put a good proposal on the table, one that we know the symphony can afford. And we are willing to give mediation another try,” Van Os said, suggesting that the role of a mediator is to offer outside-the-box suggestions. However, if negotiations get “stuck in the mud,” he said, “We reserve the right to not waste our time with mediation anymore.”
Whether the symphony can afford to return to the stage remains in question.
In public communications, the union has stated that the Symphony Society has $1.8 million with which to operate, but Cowart has said that figure does not reflect cash on hand necessary to stage even a truncated performance season, currently at five concert weekends — not including several postponed concerts that could potentially be rescheduled.
Cowart said that while fundraising continues during the strike and financial conditions fluctuate, a more accurate figure would be $500,000 to $600,000 in available funds to pay staff, musicians and expenses for an operating orchestra, which he said is not a realistic amount for a resumption of performances. Nor do financial conditions form a solid foundation for subsequent years, he said.
Brian Petkovich, assistant principal bassoon and a musician representative on the Symphony board’s finance committee, estimated the cost of operating the full orchestra at between $110,000 to $125,000 per week, not including non-musician staff salaries totaling approximately $100,000 weekly, marketing expenses or other costs such as guest performer expenses.
Cowart said he believes the two sides are closer together than at any point since September and that recent developments show “silver linings” toward a potential settlement of the contract dispute.
Management is ready to negotiate, he said. “We have stated multiple times that we know we will have to move from our last offer.”
Van Os said the goal of returning to the table is to bring the orchestra back to the stage.
“We don’t want this community to be deprived of the San Antonio Symphony orchestra,” Van Os said.
This story has been updated to correctly reflect Brian Petkovich’s role on the Symphony board finance committee.