Fort Worth — Almost a month into a musicians strike and concert cancellations, the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra management and musicians have no set plans to come back to the contract negotiation bargaining table, although both sides say they are willing to.
The FWSO was to have performed at Bass Hall over the weekend, but the concerts were cancelled by FWSO management when the musicians, who are members of the American Federation of Musicians, Local 72-147, voted to reject the orchestra management’s final offer in early September, and went on strike. Orchestra management has since announced, essentially, a suspension of the season and has cancelled programing though Nov. 6. The Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra Association was already looking at a $700,000 deficit for the upcoming season.
The work stoppage did not keep the musicians away from Bass Hall Saturday night, where they formed a picket line. Joining them was former local union president, now International President of the American Federation of Musicians, Ray Hair. It’s worth noting that the cancellations have not stopped the musicians from working on their own or pursuing collective bargaining agreements with companies and organizations that have been partnered with FWSO, including Texas Ballet Theater.
The agreement with TBT was worked out as a contingency, an “insurance policy,” according to local union chapter President Stewart Williams, in case a labor deal was not reached with the Symphony and FWSO could not meet the obligation to provide musicians for the ballet company’s performances two weeks ago in Dallas or next week at Bass Hall in Fort Worth. “We wanted to make sure there was an orchestra in the pit,” said Williams. “And, the musicians wanted to maintain that relationship.”
Performing as the Symphony Musicians of Fort Worth (www.fwsomusicians.com), the musicians will also take part in ArtsGoggle on Oct. 8 in Fort Worth and provide programing for “A Day of Music” on Oct. 22. Additionally, several of the musicians have banded together to form smaller combos and quartets, including several groups that performed two weekends ago at Shipping and Receiving in south Fort Worth. But, Williams and musician spokesperson Paul Unger insist that the move to find performance opportunities does not mean they want to walk away from the FWSO.
“We still want to negotiate,” said Unger. At the same time, he said, “We’re honoring our mission statement to bring classical music to the community and we are not going to let management stop that.”
A GoFundMe campaign, the separate contracts and audience support for the musicians’ side gigs indicate community support for the musicians, who had been in contract negotiations with FWSO management since June of 2015, with the musicians advocating for "growth not cuts" considering subscriptions and ticket sales have been on the rise.
A statement on FWSO’s website indicates that there is community backing for the symphony management and board as well. “Your support during this difficult time is truly appreciated,” the statement reads. “The letters, emails, and calls of encouragement confirm your understanding that the FWSO must be managed in a fiscally sound manner for the long-term health of the Orchestra.”
In response to questions about whether there is still a willingness on management’s part to return to the bargaining table, FWSO sent a statement to TheaterJones that reads in part, “The FWSO is eager to resume negotiations, but has stated from the beginning that concessions are a necessary part of stabilizing the organization. We have communicated this to the musicians, along with disclosing relevant information. We hope to return to the table when the musicians become willing to discuss playing a part in the organization’s long-term future.”
The struggle between musicians looking to maintain competitive salaries and management seeing traditional fund raising opportunities slack off or, in some cases, dry up following the national financial crisis in 2008 is a scenario that is being played out across the country. On Friday, the Musicians of the Pittsburg Symphony Orchestra went on strike and management cancelled weekend concerts. The Philadelphia Symphony musicians also went on strike over the weekend, and but came to an agreement with management Sunday night.
The issues in Pittsburg and Philadelphia, as they have been in Minneapolis, Louisville, Detroit, New York City and Fort Worth all have similar elements. The musicians saw flat salaries or cuts following the financial crisis. The salaries have not been restored to previous levels and the new contract offerings bring even more pay cuts. At the same time, ticket sales and orchestra popularity in the community has remained steady and, in some cases, increased. It is interesting to note that the base salary for a musician with the Pittsburg Symphony Orchestra is $107,000.00. The current base salary for a section musician with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra is $54,953.00.
Outside Bass Hall on Saturday night, Hair took a strong line, calling the FWSO management’s stance “fascist.” “This is a matter of the institution deciding what they are going to pay and telling the musicians that they can either take it, or they’re going to impose it. Musicians don’t work under those kind of conditions,” said Hair. “What does work is when there is collaboration between the orchestra and the company,” he said.
According to a statement from FWSO, management “….wants the musicians to return to the stage. However, the FWSOA has reached its financial limits.”
“The ball’s in their court,” said Unger, who thinks the musicians recent concerts and community outreach indicates that there may be untapped fundraising opportunities for the 100 year-old cultural institution. Especially as the Fort Worth Opera successfully raised $1 million in three months this summer to, in part, cover a deficit of more than $600,000.
Hair, who was the local union president for several decades, agrees. He said that past collaboration and innovative programing, like concerts with Willie Nelson and the “Concerts in the Garden” series kept the FWSO vibrant and opened the door for new audiences.
“The Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra does not just belong to downtown or a specific donor demographic,” said Williams. “It belongs to the whole city.”
» Follow the strike on the Save Our Symphony Fort Worth Facebook page