The Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony officially called a strike Monday, after management declared an impasse in negotiations and musicians on the negotiating committee refused to accept an imposition of contract terms.

Symphony management, including board members of the Symphony Society of San Antonio and Executive Director Corey Cowart, had made a “last, best and final offer” to the musicians on Sept. 13 that called for slashing the number of full-time musicians to nearly half and using part-time musicians to make up the difference at 30% of current wages and without health benefits. That offer was unanimously rejected by the musicians on Sept. 16.

On Sunday evening, San Antonio Symphony management declared an impasse in negotiations in order to impose contract terms that would mean a reduction from 72 full-time positions (71 musicians and one music librarian) to 42, with 26 part-time musicians to bring the full complement of the orchestra to 68 members.

The San Antonio Report received notification of the strike declaration at 12:50 p.m. Monday. But about two hours later, a spokesperson for Symphony management signaled a willingness to continue negotiations “to attempt to reach mutually agreeable revisions to the third year of the CBA,” according to an email.

A strike by the full complement of the orchestra’s musicians throws the concert schedule into uncertainty, though the Symphony’s email message declared that “at this time, all concerts remain scheduled as planned.” The next performance is set for Oct. 28.

Cowart said ticketholders and subscribers would be informed as to the current status of negotiations, and their effects on upcoming performances.

Kathleen Weir Vale, who has been leading negotiations as board chair of the Symphony Society of San Antonio, said she hopes to continue negotiations, but when and how that would happen is unclear.

“I hope we can [reach] an agreement that is acceptable to both sides, of course,” Vale said. “That’s it. That’s our goal.”

The musicians had initially offered to reopen their 2019-2021 contract in recognition of the negative economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic on the orchestra’s operations and revenues. They accepted what amounts to an 80% pay cut overall for the abbreviated 2021 performance season and had hoped to return to the previous contract terms for the 2021-2022 concert season, which opened Sept. 18 with a free public concert on Main Plaza.

Symphony musicians last went on strike in 1985. The San Antonio Symphony has struggled financially for decades and almost shut down at the end of 2017. It previously has employed 80 full-time musicians, with temporary substitute musicians used occasionally depending on which instruments and how many are needed for given performances.

The musicians’ negotiating committee rejected the notion of becoming a “split” orchestra of part-time and full-time musicians. They also said no to an earlier offer of a nearly 50% pay cut and a subsequent offer of a one-third reduction in pay and health benefits for full-time musicians, and proposed yearly wages of $11,250 for part-time musicians with no health benefits.

“It’s very difficult for all, for the board, for the organization, it’s difficult for everyone,” Vale said of the situation. “We love our musicians, we love our orchestra, we love our art. And it’s very difficult. I can’t imagine a board that loves its artists any more than this one.”

Richard Oppenheim, president of the American Federation of Musicians Local 23 who is a member of the negotiating committee representing the musicians, said the musicians do not believe negotiations are truly at an impasse.

“We don’t feel that there’s a genuine impasse when one side continues to want to negotiate,” Oppenheim said.

Oppenheim said he expects widespread support for the musicians in their refusal to accept terms he called “union-busting,” and said he has received affirmations from members of other San Antonio unions.

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...