Why is the San Antonio Symphony on strike? KSAT Explains

Musicians have been on strike since late 2021 as two sides struggle to agree on how to keep the San Antonio Symphony alive

In this episode of KSAT Explains we look into the current San Antonio Symphony strike, the ways that the symphony makes money and and the history of financial struggles that have led to this point.

SAN ANTONIO – Negotiations are happening, but music is not, within the San Antonio Symphony.

On September 27, 2021, symphony musicians went on strike after an impasse was declared in negotiations for a new contract between the Symphony Society of San Antonio and the union that represents a majority of its members — the local chapter of the American Federation of Musicians.

The two sides are struggling to hammer out a deal that strikes a balance between competitive wages that maintain talent and addressing financial struggles that have persisted for years.

Final offer rejected

The Symphony Society, which governs the local symphony through a board of trustees and management, made a “Last, Best and Final” offer on September 13.

That offer would:

  • Cut the number of full-time symphony musicians from 72 to 42.
  • Reduce the symphony season length from 31 weeks to 26 weeks.
  • Slash the salaries of full-time musicians from roughly $36,000 a year to $24,000.
  • Hire some musicians part-time with an $11,000 salary.

The proposed pay cuts follow two years of little-to-no income for many of the musicians who were furloughed in 2020 during the pandemic and returned in January of 2021 with reduced salaries and fewer performances due to safety protocols that limited the number of performers who could be on stage. The changes meant some musicians made just 20% of their typical symphony salary.

The union, represented by a select group of symphony musicians and representatives of the American Federation of Musicians Local 23, did not accept the Symphony Society’s offer.

“It was an easy decision to go on strike,” said Laura Scalzo, who plays First Violin. “They’re planning to essentially fire 30 of us and rehire those people back as part-time workers. I am one of those people. That’s no longer an orchestra.”

No play, no pay

Scalzo, who has played with the San Antonio Symphony for 10 seasons, hasn’t had a paycheck or health benefits from the symphony since going on strike.

Like many of her fellow musicians, she says she’s doing what she can to make ends meet.

“You name a school in this town, and I’ve been there giving a coaching,” Scalzo said. “I played a week with Charlotte Symphony. I have two or three weeks with Dallas Opera. Just trying to cobble together enough to make a living. And, you know, it’s tight.”

Musicians believe the cuts will drive away talent and make it hard to get people to audition.

“It would destroy the San Antonio Symphony. We could not be part of our own destruction,” said Mary Ellen Goree, Principal Second Violin.

Goree, who has played with the San Antonio Symphony since 1988, currently serves as the chair of the negotiating committee for the union.

“It’s not just that we won’t agree. We cannot agree to something that destroys the orchestra,” Goree said. “The product is the orchestra. The product is the musicians. Every business owner knows that when you start cutting your product, you start on a spiral downward.”

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Symphony of struggles in organization’s past

To understand the cuts proposed for the future of the orchestra, you must understand its past, according to its executive director, Corey Cowart.

“My first day or first week on the job I realized that we had about $175,000 of cash that we had available to us,” said Cowart. “And then 10 days later, I had to make my first payroll. And that was $180,000 that went out the door.”

“It was an organization living paycheck to paycheck,” said Cowart, who has been the executive director since 2019.

The symphony is a non-profit that gets funding in three ways.

  • Earned revenue — ticket sales or payment for performing for other groups such as a ballet or opera.
  • Contributed revenue — donations, grants or public funding. (The city of San Antonio has contributed roughly $2.7 million to the symphony over the last six years, according to city budget allocations.)
  • Endowment — a donor, often in the form of a trust or private foundation, makes a large contribution and the symphony used the money made off interest from that donation

The San Antonio Symphony has a $2.2 million endowment and an overall budget of roughly $5 million.

In comparison, the Houston Symphony has an endowment campaign underway as it tries to grow the fund from $70 million to $100 million by the end of 2022. An audit shows the organization had nearly $28 million in revenue in 2021.

The Dallas Symphony’s website shows a list of corporate sponsorships with big names like Toyota and American Airlines.

The symphony in Nashville, a city similar in media market size to San Antonio, has an $11 million endowment and several corporate sponsors.

Frost Bank is a corporate sponsor of the San Antonio Symphony but getting others, says management, has been challenging because of a history of shaky finances going back decades.

The San Antonio Symphony declared bankruptcy during its 2003-2004 season.

During the 2018-2019 season, the symphony had roughly $5 million in revenue but $8 million in expenses.

“Over and over and over again, the musicians have been asked to give up things — to give up salary, to give up weeks of work, to give up benefits, to give up pension contributions,” said Goree. “And always with the promise that if we just help them get their house in order, things will be better going forward.”

A 2021 audit of the symphony notes that it is “not known if management’s plan will be successful or if the symphony will be able to continue as a going concern.”

“Which means that our independent outside auditors think that there’s a reasonable chance that we wouldn’t be in business when they come back to audit us again in a year,” said Cowart.

The symphony board argues that the proposed cuts are part of the solution to addressing poor financial management that has been neglected year after year.

But the musicians we talked to wonder why fundraising isn’t the answer.

“We just are constantly told it’s not your time, you know, don’t fundraise, it’s not your time, you have to have your solid footing,” Scalzo said. “But that needs to happen. That’s what’s going to get us to a solid footing.”

According to the group’s most recent audit, “management has been actively soliciting and receiving donations to support operations.” But its history of shaky finances has created public distrust, especially among donors, says Cowart.

“We’re a community that if we did not value live orchestral music, this organization would have been gone long ago,” he said “So I think the community has stated that we must have an orchestra. We have to figure out how we rebuild that trust with the community to thoughtfully maintain and grow the orchestra over time.”

Path forward?

A federal mediator is now involved in the negotiations and the two sides are back at the table.

That, they both agree, is progress.

“I have to hope that there is a path forward with an agreement at the end, but there are no guarantees in this kind of thing,” said Goree.

“I’m cautiously optimistic that we will be back to concerts and be back to living out our mission in the coming months,” Cowart said.

Negotiation meetings have, so far, been held on February 14, February 17 and March 8. Future meetings are being scheduled. During the meeting on March 8, the Symphony Society made its 12th offer to the union.

That offer would provide:

  • Multi-year contract through 2026 with a minimum complement of 50 musicians, with a commitment to only achieve that number through attrition
  • Base salary of $30,650 for 30 total weeks of work, or $1,015 per week. Salary across the orchestra would range from $30,650 to $47,200 (not including the concertmaster) with an average salary of roughly $35,400.
  • Full 52 weeks of healthcare and insurance benefits with the employer paying 80% of the cost, in addition to personal leave and other benefits. The compensation package includes $7,100 in benefits for an average total compensation package of $42,500 for 30 weeks of work.
  • Base salary would rise over the life of the proposal from $1,015 per week to $1,115 per week, a roughly 10% increase.
  • In alignment with the protections in the CBA for each individual musician’s performance schedule planning, musicians would continue to receive 12 weeks of advance notice of their schedule with the Symphony and workweeks will continue to not exceed 22.5 hours per week total for Symphony rehearsals and performances.

The union declined the offer.

Goree, who wrote a scathing response in a blog post blasting the Symphony Society offer, issued this comment to KSAT:

“Management’s claims regarding their proposal to the musicians is in some respects dishonest (their actual offer of healthcare coverage, which is 46%, not 80%), and in other respects misleading (the suggestion of a multi-year contract that would result in gains for the musicians),” wrote Goree. “Their proposal also fails to address any of the artistic issues that would inevitably result from their shortsighted plan.”

The Symphony Society says the latest offer would, in fact, pay 80 percent of the monthly premium for all 12 months of a contract year.

“As our negotiations progress with the assistance of Federal Mediators and as we continue to meet, we want to be clear: it is not our intention to bargain or clarify offers to the Musicians’ Union through the media,” the society said in a written statement. “It is our hope that all parties will continue to utilize their legal counsel and Federal Mediators for needed clarifications of proposals on the table.”

So we continue waiting to see if this strike will be the crescendo of these negotiations.

“We know what we’re fighting for is worth that sacrifice both in terms of our rights as workers and what we know this the city deserves from its symphony orchestra,” said Scalzo.

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About the Authors:

Myra Arthur is passionate about San Antonio and sharing its stories. She graduated high school in the Alamo City and always wanted to anchor and report in her hometown. Myra anchors KSAT News at 6:00 p.m. and hosts and reports for the streaming show, KSAT Explains. She joined KSAT in 2012 after anchoring and reporting in Waco and Corpus Christi.

Valerie Gomez is the lead video editor and graphic artist for KSAT Explains. Before starting at KSAT in 2017, she worked as a video editor for KENS 5 and KVUE in Austin. She graduated from Texas State University in 2013 with a bachelor's in mass communication and is a product of SAISD and the South Side of San Antonio. She loves Jeff Goldblum.