San Antonio's striking symphony musicians end mediation, citing management's 'inflexible' offers

Musicians said management's offers would gut the orchestra and make it even harder to correct its financial course.

click to enlarge San Antonio Symphony musicians carry picket signs in front of the home of Symphony Society Chair Kathleen Weir Vale. - Sanford Nowlin
Sanford Nowlin
San Antonio Symphony musicians carry picket signs in front of the home of Symphony Society Chair Kathleen Weir Vale.
Musicians with the San Antonio Symphony have walked away from federal mediation intended to end their months-long strike, saying the orchestra's management won't give up on deep budget cuts it's yet to justify.

The musicians have been on strike since Sept. 27 over a management proposal to jettison positions from the symphony and enact deep pay cuts. A Feb. 14 agreement to sit down with a federal mediator brought the prospect of a resolution to the dispute, but that now appears to be dashed.

Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony Chair Mary Ellen Goree said management refused to budge from a proposed $5 million annual budget for the orchestra and couldn't provide justification for why it's sticking to that number.

"I think 'inflexible' is a good word," Goree said of management's offers during mediation. "That's not a number that's appropriate in a city the size of San Antonio, nor is it a number that will allow for the continuation of a professional orchestra."

Financial records obtained by the Current show that the symphony's revenues exceeded $5 million for every one of its active seasons going back to 2012-2013, even hitting $5.5 million for the 2019-2020 season shortened by the pandemic. For three of those seasons, the number exceeded $8 million, hitting a 2015-2016 high of $8.3 million.

In an emailed statement, Symphony Society Executive Director Corey Cowart said the musicians' demands don't reflect the financial realities of the orchestra. From the orchestra's 2015-2106 season through its 2019-2020 season, it averaged $1 million in emergency fundraising annually — something he said is unsustainable.

"We are now at the point that we must restore confidence in our ability to live within our means if we are ever to have an opportunity to build something stronger in the future," Cowart said.

Cowart added that management has been transparent about finances during negotiations.

Goree said she doesn't dispute the orchestra's continued shortfalls, saying the problem is that management has repeatedly failed to pursue new fundraising approaches and has balked at beefing up its endowment. Both, she added, will only become more difficult if management guts the orchestra.

The offer by the symphony management that spurred the strike would slash the number of full-time musicians from 72 to 42, eliminating four positions and converting 26 more to part-time. Earlier this year, experts told the Current that the proposed cuts were "unheard of."

"The more you destroy an orchestra, the harder it is to raise money for that orchestra," Goree said. At least four musicians have since taken temporary contracts with other orchestras and another is poised to sign a full-time deal, she added.

Goree said the musicians understand the San Antonio Symphony's continued financial woes. However, they're unwilling to see their livelihoods decimated by problems that she said are largely self-inflicted by management.

"We don't dispute the illness, we dispute the cure," Goree said. "We dispute the draconian cuts."

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Sanford Nowlin

Sanford Nowlin is editor-in-chief of the San Antonio Current.

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