The American Federation of Musicians (AFM) Local 23 chapter has filed a charge of unfair labor practices against the Symphony Society of San Antonio.

Local 23 represents the Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony, which declared a strike against the Symphony Society — the board that manages the orchestra — after it unilaterally imposed a new contract that the union considers a “draconian” reduction of wages and full-time members.

Among details of the charge filed Monday with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the union charges the Symphony Society with “engaging in bad faith surface bargaining,” having entered negotiations “with a fixed intention to agree to no terms but its own.”

Those terms include reducing the number of full-time musicians from 71 (plus one music librarian) to 42, with 26 part-time musicians to be hired “per service” for each concert to reach a complement of 68 musicians. Rather than accept the terms as imposed, the union called the strike.

The Symphony Society has claimed that repeated budget deficits require a wholesale change in approach from an annual budget of $7 million to $8 million to a reduced budget of $5 million, a figure which its members consider sustainable.

Good faith, bad faith

The crux of the complaint to the NLRB is the union’s contention that the Symphony Society has violated the spirit and letter of “midterm reopener bargaining,” the term for the memorandum of agreement reached with the board in August to adjust contract terms in response to the pandemic.

The three-year contract reached in 2019 was reopened and the musicians agreed to what was essentially an 80% reduction in pay for the year, or an average of $6,500 in annual wages for the 71 musicians and the music librarian, according to Mary Ellen Goree, principal second violin and chief negotiator for the musicians.

The memorandum specifies that any contract changes would be “due to the reasonable likelihood of continued safety, health and economic uncertainties caused directly or indirectly by the COVID-19 pandemic,” and that opening “discussions for a new collective bargaining agreement for seasons subsequent to 2021-2022” would be dependent on agreement by both parties.

“We feel we’ve got a damn good argument,” said Richard Oppenheim, AFM Local 23 president. “And we’re happy to push it through its final conclusion, however long that takes,” he said of next steps for the union after filing its charge with the NLRB.

Named in the complaint is Corey Cowart, executive director of the symphony, who said he could not comment on ongoing litigation. “We are still waiting for the union to provide available dates for the resumption of our collective bargaining negotiations so we can attempt to arrive at a mutually agreeable contract to bring orchestral music back to the stage.”

When Cowart learned that the musicians had declared a strike on Sept. 27, he said, “we’ve bargained in good faith to get to the good-faith impasse.” However, the union complains in its charge that the impasse is “invalid,” resulting from management’s refusal to negotiate beyond its “fixed intention.”

Widespread support

One month into the strike, the musicians have been the beneficiaries of widespread support from orchestral colleagues around the nation.

The International Conference of Symphony and Orchestra Musicians (ICSOM) put out a rare call to action on Sept. 30, and so far has raised nearly $150,000, an amount that “will continue to grow,” said ICSOM President Paul Austin, who plays French horn with the Grand Rapids Symphony.

ICSOM Chairperson Meredith Snow, self-described as a “rank and file violist” with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, said raising such an amount from among members of the 53-orchestra organization is not unusual.

“In general, orchestras are … ‘Johnny on the spot,’ they are ready to give to other orchestras that are in trouble,” Snow said.

Orchestra members in Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Fort Worth, Honolulu, Jacksonville, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Minnesota, Nashville, New Jersey, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Seattle, Utah, and Virginia pooled their donations in response to the ICSOM call to action and sent funds directly to the San Antonio musicians.

Karen Stiles, treasurer for the Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony, confirmed receipt of $120,000 in funds, with the remainder in pledges expected to arrive soon. Stiles said the money will be used to support the musicians during the strike, including paying for public relations, strike materials, and potentially staging public concerts.

AFM Local 23 has also set up a “benevolent fund” to support striking musicians who run into financial difficulty or require additional support during the strike period, and Sebastian Lang-Lessing, the symphony’s music director emeritus, has expressed the intention to set up a trust to receive donations on behalf of the musicians.

Snow put the responsibility for fundraising to the full capacity of the orchestra firmly on its board.

“It sounds so simplistic to say this, … but if you really want a symphony orchestra, if the people who are involved in the organization love it, if they want it, they raise the money to have it. It’s really that simple. It’s not hard,” she said.

Rally planned

The NLRB states on its website that a decision on a charge is typically made within seven to 14 weeks, “although certain cases can take much longer.” The agency cannot assess penalties but may seek legal remedies including reinstatement of the contract and backpay for workers.

In the meantime, the musicians plan to rally on Friday from 6:30 to 8 p.m. in the plaza across from the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, on the date when they would have opened their 2021-2022 concert season with a “Radiant Rachmaninoff” program featuring guest conductor Jeffrey Kahane.

Instead, the strike was called and the Symphony Society announced cancellations of the Oct. 29-30 and Nov. 5-6 scheduled concerts. The fate of other performances depends on the state of negotiations, which have not yet been scheduled.

Speakers at the rally will include Ray Hair, president of the American Federation of Musicians, and Rick Levy, head of the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL/CIO).

The rally announcement notes “other major orchestras in Texas — in Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth — are opening their seasons with the musicians’ pay fully restored to pre-pandemic levels.”

Goree, who will also speak at the rally, said, “we envy their cities’ and management[s]’ will to return them to the stage to perform the music we and our audiences also love.”

In response to a comment on her Facebook page, Goree has said anyone interested in donating to the musicians can direct their donation to the Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony website.

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Nicholas Frank

Senior Reporter 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...