Symphony Musicians’ Union Files Labor Charges Against Management

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The San Antonio Symphony practices for an upcoming concert at the Tobin Center.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

The San Antonio Symphony rehearses for an upcoming concert at the Tobin Center.

The San Antonio Symphony musicians’ negotiated labor contract expires on Dec. 31. However, in a midnight news release issued Tuesday, the Musicians’ Society of San Antonio union stated that it has filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board alleging that Symphony management has refused to bargain in good faith.

The musician’s union scheduled a press conference for Thursday in front of the offices of the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts to discuss the negotiations.

Thomas A. Stephenson, executive director of the nonprofit Symphonic Music for San Antonio (SMSA), is involved in negotiations, but refused to comment on the status of the talks, “because both parties agreed to refrain from bargaining away from the table,” he told the Rivard Report on Wednesday.

In a conference call Wednesday afternoon, violinist Craig Sorgi, negotiating chair for the Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony, and bassoonist Brian Petkovich, secretary-treasurer of the local chapter of the American Federation of Musicians, spoke about the situation.

Within five minutes of a scheduled Monday morning meeting, Petkovich said, the three members of Symphony management authorized to negotiate walked out before talks could begin.

“They walked out and told us they didn’t have anything to say, that they weren’t prepared to negotiate that day, and wouldn’t know when they could negotiate again or meet with us again,” he said.

Management negotiators refused to respond to current proposals and offered no new proposals, according to the musicians’ press release.

Stephenson said that he’s “not authorized to make comments,” because “I’m not even a party to the contract.”

He explained that the Symphony Society of San Antonio was party to the contract, represented in negotiations by Alice Viroslav, the organization’s current board chair. Attorney Michael Bernard, legal counsel for the Symphony Society and SMSA, also is involved in negotiations, Sorgi said.

Viroslav declined comment, citing pending negotiations.

The SMSA was formed in July by J. Bruce Bugg, chair of the Tobin Endowment and the Kronkosky Foundation, with the purpose of taking over Symphony operations from the Symphony Society, which had led the organization since its founding in 1939, and getting the orchestra on firmer financial footing. Stephenson was brought in to run the new organization.

Current Symphony Society board member Jim Berg said that he is awaiting a conference call for board members, which could come as soon as Thursday, to discuss dissolving the Symphony Society to transfer assets and control fully to SMSA, which would then be full party to the contract under negotiation with the union.

“Our organization, for all intents and purposes, is defunct,” Berg said of the Symphony Society.

Berg said the solution to ongoing financial struggles of the San Antonio Symphony comes down to three words: “Endowment, endowment, endowment.” The Symphony needs a major donor to step up and give an amount in the range of $50 million, which the orchestra could draw from for annual operations costs, he said.

“The musicians should not be part of this penny-pinching or painful discussions about money,” Berg said. “They deserve better from us.

“I have no axe to grind, I just want success for the Symphony.”

In an August Rivard Report story about his coming on board to shore up the Symphony’s business operations, Stephenson spoke about the group’s ongoing financial woes. Of its musicians being underpaid in general, and receiving repeated pay cuts, Stephenson said, “I can’t fix that overnight, but I’m committed to turning that around.”

Sorgi and Petkovich characterized the current contract situation as uncertain, just as the Symphony is about to head into its Tricentennial Festival season, with major concerts scheduled for Jan. 5-6, Jan. 12-13, and early February.

“Everything is up in the air right now,” Sorgi said, of where the musicians will be on those dates. “The future is unwritten.”


5 thoughts on “Symphony Musicians’ Union Files Labor Charges Against Management

  1. As former members of the San Antonio Symphony, we are writing in support of the SA Symphony musicians, the musician’s union, and the San Antonio Symphony as an institution. The new board and management have a responsibility to awaken the community to the amazing institution that is your symphony. Symphonic music is a great repository of that which makes life more noble for everyone. Your symphony musicians have added so much to your community. For those that misunderstand the musicians union, this is a way for the musicians to express themselves as a team. The team building work of the union has extended beyond negotiating contracts to building a team that creates absoloutely riveting performances! The musicians in your orchestra work very hard, in a high pressure environment, to bring something very important to your community. The Symphony Board must step up and go into the community with this message.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Sarah, they remind me to give a little when I can. I still hope that one day the musicians get their full compensation, when that big-city endowment is finally in place.

      • Give a little when you can, and encourage your neighbors to do so. Bring children to concerts! Bring friends! The Tobin center is a grand place.

  2. I agree with Mr. Berg, a robust endowment is needed. For this to become a reality, a robust endowment campaign is needed. We can’t just hope and wait for a $50 million donation to come in. Many nonprofits moan that San Antonio doesn’t have the numbers — not as many large corporations headquartered here as Houston, Dallas, Chicago, etc. to yield one large gift like that, but there is no reason to be defeatist. With a more comprehensive, strategic approach to fundraising, with an endowment campaign as a high priority along with the annual fund (operating expenses) campaign, smaller endowment gifts in the $1-10 million range could be amassed. Targeting 50 companies and individuals in San Antonio with that capability and inviting them to become members of the Symphony’s “Million Dollar Club” with a gift of a million or more would begin to amass an endowment. The board needs to aggressively take this project in hand, develop a strategy for identifying these prospects and a timetable of assignments for personal solicitation by board members, making the case for a robust endowment as the foundation of the Symphony’s future. Structuring the planned giving program with an endowment benefit for the expectancy fund would also add to the amount. Gifts of a million dollars or more could also be structured over time, for example, a ten-year period of $100K per year to reach a million, etc., with naming opportunities for endowing specific things: musician’s positions, the children’s program, the pops program, etc. It can be done, it is up to the board and management to do it, our excellent symphony deserves it, and San Antonio needs a well-endowed symphony to ensure music enriches our lives and those of future generations. If management does not have the wherewithal to undertake an endowment campaign, perhaps the Kronkosky or some other philanthropic foundation would underwrite the cost of financing the campaign by bringing in expert fundraising counsel over a several-year period, who would shepherd the board in accomplishing the tasks involved in planning the strategy and implementing board assignments/solicitations. Seed money to make an endowment a reality. Perhaps we could approach companies who will now have their tax bracket reduced from 35% to 21% to share some of that gain. How about an endowment pitch that asks companies to allocate just one percent of those tax savings to the symphony, for which they in turn receive a charitable tax deduction? Or even 5%. Do the homework, do the math before you go in to see these prospects and have a plan for their gift that makes sense to them, not just a hand-wringing plea, but something they can take to their board or financial adviser that makes the case for the symphony but also is tailored to their benefit, whether it be avoidance of capital gains on appreciated stock, strategic charitable tax deductions, or heightened good corporate citizen status in the community. On a closing note, have a look at this three-year old article containing info about the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s breathtaking endowment, which they never stop building. And note that a symphony’s sound endowment and asset portfolio can weather even a polar vortex:

  3. One more thing: for those concerned about losing annual fund revenue for the operating fund in the face of an endowment campaign, endowment gifts can be structured to provide a percentage to the annual fund. The percentage can be based on what the endowment would provide when fully vested. Large donors will understand this, that until an endowment is up and running and providing enough interest to grow the endowment corpus as well as to provide operating income, annual fund donations cannot be diluted.

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