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Terez Mertes

Please Stop Striking

March 18, 2013 at 7:02 PM

I've been torn about whether to publicly discuss the San Francisco Symphony's labor dispute, hoping it would simply go away quietly, in a classy sort of way, which would reassure me that the Symphony and its musicians are as extraordinary as I always tell people they are. But it's not going away quietly. And it takes two sides to keep a dispute going. So. I'm going to take a risk here, and speak my thoughts, because, being a writer, it is very uncomfortable to keep them locked up inside my head. I could have kept it solely on my blog, thus not risking offending anyone here who unequivocally supports the musicians. But the truth is, I'd love to bounce this whole thing back and forth with fellow members. It's upsetting me, and I long for others' opinions. Because one thing I can be sure of is that other members here have as deep a love of classical music as I do. So, please. I want to hear your opinion about this strike, even if you want to criticize my words or my stance.

The following first appeared at The Classical Girl

I am so very sad that the musicians and management of the San Francisco Symphony have not been able to settle their differences and come to an agreement. Now cancelled is their prestigious East Coast tour, including performances at Carnegie Hall and Washington DC’s Kennedy Center. This is a disaster, not just financially, but for the symphony’s reputation.

How much does this really mean to me, personally? I chide myself over this urge to obsess about it, to grieve. But by cancelling a tour across the country, it is no longer a local issue. The world is watching the SFS exposing this ugly, contentious side, destroying the illusion of a cohesive organization. I’m not just sad, I’m ashamed. I’ve nattered on here at my blog about the wonderful SFS, my sanctuary from the real world, that has never disappointed me. Does this make a sucker out of me, that I’m so enthusiastically supporting such an institution?

Most of my classical music friends are musicians, and surely support the striking musicians. Will I be endangering their good will if I step out on a limb here and say enough already, that the musicians need to stop being so obstinate? This is not the Minnesota Orchestra here, or the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. The San Francisco Symphony has one of the strongest, healthiest endowments in the classical music world. Its musicians are among the top three best paid in the country. Their argument: they want their pay to keep pace with the other top two orchestras in the country, Chicago and Los Angeles. Management is proposing a pay freeze this year, and a paltry increase next year. The musicians and their union are not biting. Nor is management capitulating.

I’m certainly not qualified to argue cogently for either side in this labor dispute. I can only read articles, listen to others’ opinions. I’m trying to continue to see it from both sides. But it’s getting harder to feel sympathy for either side with each passing day.

In the end, as I said, what I feel is tremendous sorrow. The dispute is ugly and damaging, and both sides are getting damaged, and it’s the paying audience members are being hurt, not to mention the San Francisco Symphony’s fine reputation. Further damage, locally, is the fact that the SFS’s subscription season renewal is in full swing. I don’t know about the other subscribers, but I’m not sure I want to go flinging money at them right now, not when the two sides are squabbling like overtired siblings.

Please solve your dispute, San Francisco Symphony and musicians. All of you are losing so, so much, with each passing day.

©2013 Terez Rose

From Tom Holzman
Posted on March 19, 2013 at 12:36 PM
Terez - I suspect that we all feel your pain. I am so sorry to hear about the problems of the SFS. I hope this will end soon without lingering bitterness. The SFS is a very good orch, and it would be a shame if this episode had awful, lasting repercussions. Good luck to them.
From Terez Mertes
Posted on March 19, 2013 at 5:43 PM
Thanks for your comment, Tom. You said it all well.
From Anne Horvath
Posted on March 19, 2013 at 5:47 PM
I won't criticize your words or your stance, nor have you endangered any good will, at least from me. (Smiley, but perhaps a bit wan, face here)

I hope the strike ends soon too. The musicians are hanging tough for cost of living raises and health benefits. We'll see.

Reading about the proposed new $500 million hall face-lift and addition was a surprise. LA hit the jackpot with their new hall, but otherwise there are a lot of fine orchestras out there that really stepped into it by getting into the construction business.

You could choose to be optimistic by renewing your subscription. Just saying...

From Laurie Niles
Posted on March 19, 2013 at 6:10 PM
Here is another perspective on the strike:

I think that what makes this so difficult, is that the only people willing to speak up for the musicians, is the musicians. In a lot of ways, I feel like workers of all kinds are way too beaten down and willing to watch in silence as more and more gets skimmed from their wages and benefits.

The SFS salaries sound like big salaries, but SF is one crazy-expensive place to live, and being in the symphony is non-stop work and non-stop, on-the-spot stress. It really is WORK, at the level they do it. Not the same thing as quartets for fun in the living room. Sometimes I think people confuse the reality of an artist or entertainer's life with the idea that art and entertainment is pleasurable and relaxing to the beholder. To the artist, it is work! And at the highest level, it's work that saps you to the marrow and to the soul.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on March 19, 2013 at 6:59 PM
Anne and Laurie, I so appreciate your opinions here. I think it's one of the touchiest things I've ever blogged about, and it's an interesting feeling, supporting both sides and yet sorta bashing both sides.

Laurie - I saw the article over at Facebook, on the link there. The author wrote a fine article and expresses herself with great eloquence and passion. I didn't like her assumption, however, that everyone on the administration side is a fat-cat, well-paid, pencil-pusher. Yikes! Talk about doing something for the love of it: anyone know any average-status nonprofit or arts administration worker? Principled, educated people, earning poverty wages. You do it for the love of supporting either a noble endeavor, or it's your way of supporting a higher art. I would really enjoy hearing THEIR perspective, here. Neither musician nor well-paid administrator. Some of them will lose their jobs if the financial toll of this is too high.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on March 19, 2013 at 7:05 PM
>Reading about the proposed new $500 million hall face-lift and addition was a surprise.

Yes, that one's ridiculous. My only hope is that it operates out of its own little discrete (and discreet?) budget, created through separate fundraising, and doesn't factor into the rest of their annual costs. I would certainly argue that it's a ridiculous time to even speak of it, much less try and raise funds/support for it, particularly in light of how things are now.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on March 19, 2013 at 7:11 PM
And Laurie, I forgot to mention that I really enjoyed what you wrote here:

>It really is WORK, at the level they do it. Not the same thing as quartets for fun in the living room. Sometimes I think people confuse the reality of an artist or entertainer's life with the idea that art and entertainment is pleasurable and relaxing to the beholder. To the artist, it is work! And at the highest level, it's work that saps you to the marrow and to the soul.

From Lisa Van Sickle
Posted on March 19, 2013 at 6:59 PM
Are management's salaries also frozen?

In my little corner of the world, public employees haven't gotten raises for several years, and most of us in the private sector are happy if we still have jobs at all. With the continuing increases in the cost of health insurance, take-home pay ain't what it used to be.

These people are certainly in a different position than their comrades in Minneapolis, who are looking at something like a 25% pay cut. If management is taking the attitude of, "Well, the heck with our players. All those people who used to play for the San Jose symphony still need jobs and will work cheap," that's one thing. If the organization is rolling in clover while pleading poor to avoid giving the musicians a cost-of-living increase, shame on them. If, however, the organization as a whole is having to tighten the cliche-d belt, it's a different situation.

From Donna Zimmerman
Posted on March 19, 2013 at 7:15 PM

Thank you for your plea to the SFS. Though I have never had the pleasure of experiencing their talents, I feel that I have through your wonderful reviews. Your blog speaks to the non-profit arts administrator. Though I am not in the arts, I am however an administrator for a non-profit and I must agree with you to a certain degree; there are some of us that do what we do for the "cause" not always for the money. Yes, we would prefer to be well-paid like others, but some of us also want to make a difference. I believe that to be the case with many musicians and art administrators alike. Pay is important; so are benefits both which tend to be on the last wrung of the ladder. Overall, at some point I believe those that are striking and those that are balking must decide; what is the greater good...

From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on March 19, 2013 at 6:46 PM
Terez, I can't find any reason to take issue with anything you write. I also agree with Laurie that it seems like talented workers from so many fields, like teaching, are having these same kinds of problems, being undervalued by their own management and society at large.

Where I'm bothered, though, is by the idea in the McLain blog that musicians are special and privileged and should somehow be above all that because they work so hard and are so talented, etc. etc. There are a lot of people who work very hard in this economy and who don't earn a decent living, despite their hard work, dedication, and talent.

I see something similar among scientists, too, which is my own field, so I can speak about it with more authority. To get a PhD in a scientific field is quite grueling. These days it takes an average of 6 years just to get the PhD, sometimes more, and after that you usually do 1 or 2 "postdocs," which are low-paid training positions. After that you get to compete with 300 other applicants for a job as an assistant professor, where you don't make $160K or even close, even in San Francisco.

I read the arguments for increasing the NIH budget, and they are just as compelling, in many ways, as the pro-music arguments. Scientific research is certainly more valuable to me, and, I would argue, for society, than oil subsidies, for example. And professors' work is more valuable than that of the stable of $350K/year administrators that most major research universities have on their payroll.

But when scientists couch their arguments in terms of what they deserve because of how hard they work and how smart they are, they run into the same problem as these musicians. The "free market" doesn't work that way. If you don't serve your audience, or the taxpayer, then the money isn't going to be there for you. And sometimes the money just isn't there, period.

I don't think there are any short-term solutions to this problem, only the long-term ones of education so that we influence values from the ground up.

There are probably also some political reforms that would help: in science, reforming the way government research grants are awarded and distributed would make a big difference.

In music, I don't know, but I wonder whether there could be some reforms in the way non-profits are governed and administered. It seems to me that, at the very least, symphonies shouldn't have to be paying the bloated administrative costs that they are now, or building buildings they can't afford rather than paying musicians decent salaries.

After reading some of the comments above, I realize I shouldn't lump all administrators together either. I was a grant administrator for a while in a scientific lab, and some of my best friends were other administrators ;-). I felt that the work we did was important and necessary, and I'm sure that's also true for many arts administrators. I don't know how it is in San Francisco, but I have seen in other situations where the musicians are the lowest on the totem pole, and I don't think that's right.

Universities have also gotten themselves into trouble with those two issues: research grant overhead is being used to pay six-figure administrator salaries (when I was an administrator, I sure wasn't one of those) and build expensive new buildings rather than being funneled directly into research.

If a political candidate ran on that kind of a reform platform, I would sure get behind him or her.

From Emily Hogstad
Posted on March 19, 2013 at 9:36 PM
I just wanted to mention a couple things about Minnesota... The proposed pay cuts here are 30-50%, not 25% (the table eliminates seniority pay and requires re-negotiating all overscale). And our endowment is the sixth largest orchestra endowment in America (and it will be fourth largest once fundraising for Building For the Future fundraising is completed in December). Plus we have a shiny new $50 million lobby, which management raised the money for before they mentioned that oh yeah, they were planning on decimating the orchestra, and hopefully Minneapolis is down with that? So there are definitely differing schools of thought about how well we're doing financially. Some people say we're doing badly, citing last year's %6 million deficit, while others feel we're actually doing very well.

Orchestral work stoppages are very very painful things. I pray the damage done to your community is not too great. Our six-month old twin lockouts have been devastating here in Minnesota. And the frustrating thing is, with better communicators at the helm, they could easily have been avoided. From the little I know about the situation, I suspect the same thing is true in San Francisco.

From Paul Deck
Posted on March 19, 2013 at 11:49 PM
Karen's remarks are right on.

Public university professors in many places have not received raises in a long time, and you do not see us going on strike, partly because we are barred from doing so by state law. Karen mentioned assistant professor salaries. According to data collected by the American Chemical Society (so we are talking mostly chemists and some chemical engineers), the average salary of FULL professors who have calendar-year appointments is $130,000. The deans at our place make around $300,000 which is less than the SFS concertmaster makes, and our deans are highly talented people who have worked very very hard, typically for at least 20 years not counting any of their schooling or postdoc training.

One of the favorite things for university professors to grouse about is the salary of the football coach. It is like musicians grousing about how much pop stars make. Our football coach makes an obscene amount of money. But curiously his salary is determined the same way mine is -- by the market. If he wants a raise, all he has to do is get a competitive offer from another school and be willing to move there if the offer isn't matched. Same for me.

Someone said it was weird that only other musicians were voicing strong opinions on the side of the SFS musicians. One possibility that you should consider is that this is because you are defending a position that is not objectively all that reasonable. Rather, it is an emotional, empathetic response to shared stress. I think what makes the whole business very stressful for professional musicians is knowing that if they do not make it into one of the few top jobs, there is no obvious well-paying fallback. The guy who was runner-up for the trombonist job is going to end up teaching as an adjunct faculty member somewhere for $30,000 if he's lucky. In other fields such as science and engineering there is a broader spectrum of well-paid fall-backs.

From Lydia Leong
Posted on March 20, 2013 at 2:46 AM
The cost of living in San Francisco is extraordinary. A six-figure salary seems like a lot of money until you realize what it costs to live in the city. Also note that many of the musicians, especially the younger musicians, don't make anywhere near the figure being cited as the average, especially given the fact that the SFS has gone to the practice of using more players with temporary rather than permanent appointments. (Or at least this was the case a few years ago -- not certain about now.)

Any time workers in an organization are asked to tighten their belts, management, including yes, executive management, should be asked to do the same. There are obviously plenty of ways to get around this -- for instance, the common practice of giving non-cash bonuses (cars, houses, etc.) in order to get around monetary payments -- but at least it's a start.

It does not seem unreasonable that the players receive cost of living increases as well as retaining health benefits. At the same time, there's an argument to be made that there should be retirement or re-auditioning at some point in time. SFS does not have the clinging-to-your-seat-until-you-die problem to the same degree that some other orchestras do, but constant seniority-driven increases end up both paying older musicians a ton of money as well as resulting in a potentially lower-quality orchestra. (Think of the Chicago Symphony's aging principal horn, whose retirement critic Jon von Rhein constantly harps upon, since his failings are contributing to precarious concerts.)

From Terez Mertes
Posted on March 20, 2013 at 2:53 AM
Wow, this is such a pleasure to come back home to such rich, informative, articulate responses. Thank you so much, Lisa, Donna (welcome to - stick around for a while!), Karen, Emily and Paul. You all have offered such a wonderful buffet of opinions that I'm going to go back and reread all of them tomorrow. I so appreciate it. This is such a thorny issue, given that we are all, at some level, musicians, and have empathy for fellow musicians, but for the situation as a whole. (Paul, you put it well)

Emily, I well remember some of your posts about the Minnesota crises - just awful. Shocking pay reductions being asked. And I had no idea they had the 6th largest endowment in the country. Oh, man. How does that all figure out??? SFS has an extremely healthy endowment - maybe top in the country for orchestras? (Would have to reread my own article to confirm.) And Lisa, I don't believe there's a management pay freeze. But, then again, one wonders if the lower level administrators had good, comparable pay to begin with,on par with colleagues in other similarly placed orchestras. Are they the top 3% like the musicians? Those obscene exec salaries, well, I won't argue those. As Karen and Paul pointed out, that kind of disparity shows up in academia as well.

Thank you, all of you, for taking the time to offer such great comments.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on March 20, 2013 at 3:03 AM
Lydia - we posted at the same time. Oops! Thank you for your opinion and words as well! Interesting that you should comment about the Chicago Philharmonic (or are they Symphony?) because one of the SFS longtime principals (not sure if that's his title), a timpanist, touted as one of the world's best, has gone over to Chicago. I think he cited frustration with SFS management. So, I know that's something the musicians are arguing for: that the SFS will lose the cream of the crop if they don't stay competitive, salary-wise, with Chicago and Los Angeles.

BTW, the base salary for everyone (permanent members, that is), according to reports I've seen, is $145K. So, there are no little guys only making $80K in the equation. (ONLY?! ... gasp!) But that's heresy, so please do correct me if I'm off the mark here.

From Corwin Slack
Posted on March 20, 2013 at 12:28 PM
I posted this as a comment on another blog but my observation is that there are a lot of players who are every bit as good as SFS players. There are very few positions that pay like the SFS. In such conditions don't expect this to end well for the musicians.
From Emily Hogstad
Posted on March 20, 2013 at 2:49 PM
"Emily, I well remember some of your posts about the Minnesota crises - just awful. Shocking pay reductions being asked. And I had no idea they had the 6th largest endowment in the country. Oh, man. How does that all figure out???"

That's what WE'RE trying to figure out. In my opinion, it's A) a power play by the anti-union forces of the leaders of the board of directors (you'll note some striking similarities in the tactics Scott Walker used and the board chair is using), and B) they wanted to stall for months because that way they wouldn't have to pay rent to the convention center during a renovation year.

I wrote a blog entry about this conundrum here that you might find interesting.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on March 20, 2013 at 3:55 PM
Emily, I'll go give that a read. And Corwin, I sure hope it doesn't turn out that bleak. AND I'd hate to see management not budging an inch and getting all they want from the bargain.

In the end, I just want the two sides to friggin' COMPROMISE.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on March 20, 2013 at 6:35 PM
The NYT had a great article about the strike, and I like how it offered a slightly different perspective (further from the trenches here in the SF Bay Area) and also provided some good-to-know facts about the points the two sides are disputing.

A few points: I was wrong about thinking the base was $145K. It's $141. And here are a few excerpts from the article that pertain to some of the issues brought up on this thread.

"The orchestra, which showed an $800,000 deficit on a $79.2 million budget for its 2011-12 fiscal year (a lower deficit than in the years immediately preceding), initially asked the players to accept a wage freeze for the first year of a new contract, with a 1 percent raise in each of the next two years. The latest proposal, turned down by the players, was for a 26-month agreement, with a salary increase of 1 percent during the first year and 2 percent during the second, for a new base salary of $145,979 by the end of the agreement."

So. The management side is no longer insisting on a wage freeze.

Here's more:

"On their Web site the players point to more than $10 million spent on the orchestra’s centennial celebration last year, though Mr. Assink disputes the figure and says that the cost was mostly underwritten by dedicated contributions. The musicians also point to plans for an expansion of the orchestra’s home, the Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall, at a cost of half a billion dollars, though Mr. Assink says a project of that magnitude is still a dream, one arrived at by the board and management with the participation of players and likely to be scaled down considerably.

In a separate statement on the players’ site, David Gaudry, a violist and the chairman of the musicians’ negotiating committee, cites 'enormous bonuses and compensation to top executives and consultants.' Mr. Assink’s salary is currently frozen at $477,000 annually, which places him at the low end of his profession among top orchestras. He was awarded a one-time bonus of about half that amount for his long service. (He became the orchestra’s general manager in 1990, its executive director in 1999.)"

So. Again, it's tough to decide if one side is being the villain here, or being too obstinate. But it was good to read the article.

You can find it in its entirety HERE

From Paul Deck
Posted on March 20, 2013 at 10:10 PM
Lydia wrote, "Also note that many of the musicians, especially the younger musicians, don't make anywhere near the figure being cited as the average, especially given the fact that the SFS has gone to the practice of using more players with temporary rather than permanent appointments. (Or at least this was the case a few years ago -- not certain about now.)"

That is *exactly* also true of faculty members at public universities. Assistant professors don't start anywhere near the $130,000 wage that I quoted in my previous post. And if you look at "The Chronicle of Higher Education" for even a couple of weeks, what you will see is story after story of PhDs who narrowly missed getting a tenureeam appointment, and lacking well-paying fall-back career options (albeit mainly in humanities disciplines), are working as adjunct faculty members for the kinds of wages that leaves them eligible for public assistance. If you ask an "administrator" where all the tuition increases have gone, the answer will be "employee health insurance."

Music is not the only "humanities discipline" in which there are too few available well-paid positions for extremely well-prepared, highly talented candidates who feel they belong "at the top of their game." But for some reason that I cannot fathom, musicians consider their situation to be completely unique and special. The world "needs" poetry too, but show me a poet (who is not also a university professor) who makes $160,000 selling poetry. If you do think of one, his or her logical counterpart in the music world will be Josh Bell, not the principal second of the SFS.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on March 21, 2013 at 3:46 AM
I've made $16.00 selling poetry.

Oh, wait. That wasn't as many zeroes. Never mind.

Oh. And that was the total sum of the past 17 years of trying. Never mind.

I guess that might be a sore point for me, there. Lucky, lucky, the artist that gets paid (and well) to make their art. Take a look at what novelists make. The ones who are able to get their work sold. I won't tell you the number of hours and personal investment I've put into my craft in the past 10 years. I would only be embarrassing myself.

Okay, pity party done. I didn't devote my education to writing, I'm pretty much a later starter there, as on the violin, so I'm really only in the place to admire those who are successful in either camp.

From Joseph Galamba
Posted on March 23, 2013 at 7:38 PM
While it is true performers might have an easier time than people who are poets and only poets, the analogous profession for musicians is closer to a composer than a violinist.

Of course hopeful academics have a very hard time. I've met people who drift from institution to institution unable to get tenure and uproot everything of their lives and work every few years while making relatively modest incomes relative to their intelligence and abilities. Of course, the teacher's union is quite an aggressive institution as well.

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