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No Music by the Bay . . .

Labor: S.F. Symphony musicians go on strike after the sides fail to reach a new contract. Wages and health care are the main issues.

December 07, 1996|MARY CURTIUS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — Wearing white ties and tails, musicians of San Francisco's Symphony picketed Louise M. Davies Hall Thursday night after calling a strike and canceling their scheduled performance of Mozart's Requiem.

Dozens of musicians marched good-naturedly in front of the concert hall at the Civic Center, carrying instrument cases and picket signs that urged rush-hour commuters to "Honk if You Love Music." Inside the empty hall, the symphony management fumed about the possible cancellation of most of the symphony's sold-out holiday performances.

The strike here is the latest in a series of labor disputes--focusing primarily on wage and benefit issues--that have plagued orchestras around the country this season. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra ended a 10-week strike by accepting a four-year contract Wednesday; last month, the Philadelphia Orchestra agreed to return to work after a nine-week strike; the Oregon Symphony struck for 15 days; and the Cleveland Orchestra players, now in the midst of contract renewal negotiations, have authorized a strike to begin at midnight tonight if an agreement isn't reached. By contrast, Los Angeles Philharmonic musicians, who haven't gone on strike since 1966, signed a three-year contract in September.

In San Francisco, both sides say the issues dividing them include scheduling of concerts and salaries, but health care is the main point of contention. San Francisco Symphony musicians called strikes in 1990 and 1993, when their contracts expired, and in 1993, the key issue again was health care.

"We had made a lot of progress in talks this week and are deeply disappointed that the musicians called this strike," said Karen Ames, a spokeswoman for the symphony. "We could have had a settlement. Now, everybody has got to get back to the table."

Ames insisted that the two sides are close to reaching agreement on the disputed issues, but spokesmen for the musicians portrayed negotiations as hopelessly deadlocked. No new talks have yet been scheduled, and musicians warned that the strike may last several weeks.

As they did in 1993, the musicians object to the symphony's plan to save money by replacing the current health care plan with a plan that the musicians claim is inferior. (In 1993, management backed down from the proposed change, ending the strike.) The musicians also are asking for longer breaks between scheduled concerts, something they say is needed to help reduce the number of repetitive stress injuries that musicians suffer.

Additionally, the musicians are demanding a pay raise that they say would bring their average salaries in line with the nation's largest symphonies.

"This is a highly competitive business. To attract top people you have to have parity with the other symphonies," said Frances Jeffrey, a violinist who heads the musicians' negotiating team.

The musicians' annual base salary is about $74,000. But with recording and overtime, symphony officials say, the average pay in 1995-96 was $94,785, a figure Jeffrey disputes as inflated. Musicians opened negotiations in March with a demand for a 5% pay increase spread over three years.

Ames said that the musicians' demands were unrealistic.

"There is a national trend in the industry that we are looking at a lower level of increases," said Ames. "It is no secret that the last few years have constituted tougher times for symphonies, for the arts in general."

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The San Francisco Symphony is one of the city's most popular cultural institutions, particularly since Michael Tilson Thomas took over in 1993 as musical director. Performances regularly are sold out. But the symphony says that it has an operating budget deficit of $1.1 million. The musicians say that the deficit is an artificial one that could be eliminated by the symphony using non-earmarked funds from its $81-million endowment to help pay operating costs.

"The Grinch here is the symphony's executive director," said Jeffrey, charging that Peter Pastreich had dragged negotiations on since March. Pastreich was unavailable for comment, but Ames said management had been negotiating in good faith with the musicians.

The symphony's three-year contract with the 102 musicians represented by the American Federation of Musicians, Local 6, expired Nov. 23. Tilson Thomas and the symphony were on tour in Europe when the contract expired. Musicians leafleted audiences in Europe, outlining their grievances, but did not vote to strike until early Thursday morning, after the two sides conducted marathon negotiations Monday through Wednesday.

Performances that may be canceled include "The Colors of Christmas" on Dec. 16-18 and Handel's "Messiah," on Dec. 20-22. The symphony set up a telephone hotline for patrons to get regular updates on scheduling changes.

Jeffrey said the striking musicians will hold alternative holiday concerts in a San Francisco cathedral next week, should the strike continue. Admission will be free, but musicians will ask patrons to donate to their strike fund, she said.

"We are very dismayed about this situation," Jeffrey said. "We are dismayed that this is going to affect the public."

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