San Antonio Symphony Musicians Are Striking to Keep the Band From Breaking Up

Mary Ellen Goree

Musicians say that management’s austere proposal, gutting the full-time orchestra and slashing pay and benefits, will destroy the San Antonio Symphony. They’ve gone on strike because, as one musician said, “We will not be complicit in our own destruction.”

The San Antonio Symphony has been on strike since September 27. (Manuel Nägeli / Flickr)

Interview by
Alex Birnel

In contract negotiations late September, management of the financially struggling Symphony Society of San Antonio presented their “last, best and final offer” to musicians. They planned to cut musicians’ pay, nearly halve the size of its orchestra, and turn dismissed full-time musicians into lower-paid part-time musicians — creating what’s known in the symphony world as an “A/B structure.”

Management says these austere measures are the only way to save the symphony. But musicians disagree. Refusing to accept management’s terms, musicians of the San Antonio Symphony, united as American Federation of Musicians (AFM) Local 23, went on strike.

The musicians have been on strike since September 27. Since then, they’ve staged public rallies, picketed management’s offices, and engaged in labor solidarity actions with other San Antonio workers, and planned additional actions to come.

For Jacobin, Alex Birnel interviewed Mary Ellen Goree, principal second violin of the San Antonio Symphony and chair of the Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony, AFM Local 23.

Alex Birnel

Can you provide some context about the San Antonio Symphony? Who are the musicians, on the one hand, and who are the symphony administrators and financial actors, on the other?

Mary Ellen Goree

The San Antonio Symphony — technically, the full name is Symphony Society of San Antonio — is a nonprofit that was incorporated in 1939. It has an executive director, an administrative office, and then of course the musicians. And like any nonprofit it has a board of directors. The board of directors has about twenty or thirty members. Some represent corporate interests, and some are music lovers who are in a position to be generous to the San Antonio Symphony.

The symphony, on paper, is supposed to have seventy-two staff musicians. We are actually down to somewhere in the mid-sixties right now, because we have some vacant positions we weren’t able to fill, mostly because of the pandemic, during which we couldn’t have auditions. Musicians are hired by competitive auditions. We have graduates from some of the top music schools in the United States, and in a few cases the world. Every musician in the San Antonio Symphony won their job, and it’s horrendous to suggest taking those full-time jobs away.

Alex Birnel

The expression I heard on the picket line is that management’s proposal “breaks up the band.” Can you talk about how this austere proposal caused a breakdown in negotiations and led to a strike?

Mary Ellen Goree

The proposal from management has to be understood as a symptom rather than a cause.

The strike is an unfair labor practice strike. It is our contention that the symphony engaged in bad-faith bargaining with us. They entered into bargaining with a fixed endpoint in mind, which is not how you bargain. We presented a proposal to the management of the board that contained cuts in our own pay, and we also proposed a joint management-musician fundraising initiative. They rejected that out of hand and presented us with their “last, best, and final offer” without actually negotiating.

Their proposal cuts the symphony from seventy-two full-time musicians down to forty-two, with the remaining twenty-six positions to be very part-time. This is what in the industry we call an A/B orchestra. The part-time musicians would be the B contract holders, and their jobs would pay just over $11,000 a year with no benefits, no health insurance. Currently, all full-time staff musicians have benefits. Management’s proposal would also eliminate the positions that are currently vacant on account of the pandemic.

We held a vote on it, and the musicians unanimously rejected this proposal. We notified our management that it had been rejected, and they responded by declaring impasse in the negotiations. They refuse to negotiate on these intolerable terms. Just as a statement of fact, these terms will destroy the San Antonio Symphony. We will not be complicit in our own destruction. We had no choice at that point but to go on strike.

Alex Birnel

How long have you been on strike, and what has the mood been like?

Mary Ellen Goree

Our management notified us on Sunday, September 26, that they would be refusing to budge on their terms, and on Monday, September 27, we called the strike. The mood among my colleagues is unified. We are completely in agreement that we will not participate in this destructive plan. I don’t think anybody ever looks forward to calling a strike, but this strike is so clearly necessary, that there is really just a heartwarming level of unity among the musicians.

We’re musicians, so we’re very used to the concept of having many people working together, everybody with a slightly different role. In a symphony, you’ve got the violins, and we have a lot of notes. The tuba doesn’t have as many notes, but you wouldn’t have the complete symphony without those notes. It’s the same with what we’re doing now.

Alex Birnel

What do you want the public to know about the significance of symphony players coming together and standing up to protect their jobs and the symphony? And why is it important for a city like ours to have a symphony anyway?

Mary Ellen Goree

People may not know this, but symphony orchestras are one of the most successfully unionized industries there is. Virtually every professional orchestra in the United States and Canada is nearly or entirely members of the AFM.

It’s so important for a city to have an orchestra. This is something I’m quite passionate about. We of course play classical concerts for audiences who enjoy that kind of music — and there’s actually a surprisingly large audience in San Antonio, as in most cities, for these concerts — but that’s not all we do.

We are also a huge part of the educational infrastructure in San Antonio. We play young people’s concerts for tens of thousands of schoolchildren every year, from every demographic, in every type of school environment. We are also frequently coaches for high school band and orchestra sectionals. We are private teachers for many students in San Antonio. The great majority of musicians in the top youth orchestras are studying with somebody who is a musician in the symphony or somebody who plays as an extra for some of our concerts.

We are also an economic driver. There are studies done on the impact of the arts in the local economy, and it’s a pretty big slice of the pie. When we have symphony concerts, people come downtown, they park, they eat dinner before or after the concert. We’re a big part of the economic life of the city’s downtown.

And most importantly, we’re part of the quality of life of the city. It’s important to have musicians in the city. Not only do we play formal concerts, but we play at people’s weddings, we play when churches have special music programs, we’re present at important moments in people’s lives.

Cities the size of San Antonio typically have full-time orchestras with much bigger budgets than ours, and the musicians are compensated at a much higher level than we are. Other cities that are close to us in size or even smaller, like Kansas City and Nashville, have full-time orchestras that have much bigger budgets. Milwaukee is smaller than San Antonio, and they have a full-time orchestra with a budget of $18 million, while we’re fighting for a $7.5 million dollar budget.

I’ve gone back through twenty or thirty years of history, and as the city gets bigger and bigger, the symphony budget gets smaller and smaller. It should be the other way around.

Alex Birnel

What’s up next, and how can people stay up to date and help?

Mary Ellen Goree

We’re planning future actions: picketing, leafleting, and maybe some performances and social events. The most direct way to find out what we’re up to is to go to our website and our Facebook page.