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'We really didn't see that we had any choice': San Antonio Symphony musicians on strike after negotiations sputter

The move comes after the symphony's board voted to impose a previously rejected offer.

SAN ANTONIO — The union representing the musicians in the San Antonio Symphony has declared a strike after the symphony declared an impasse during negotiations.

Early in the pandemic, musicians of the San Antonio Symphony Orchestra adapted by creating a virtual symphony performance. One of the other ways they adapted was by approaching the San Antonio Symphony Society and offering to reopen their contract.

“The musicians voluntarily agreed to take an 80 – that’s eight-zero – percent pay cut during last season in order to keep the San Antonio Symphony together and on stage during the pandemic,” said Mary Ellen Goree.

Goree has been playing classical music for most of her life.

“Well, I fell in love with playing orchestral music as a child of maybe 11,” Goree said.

It has been a long road from her hometown of Ottawa, Kansas to becoming principle second violin with the San Antonio Symphony. She has studied, lived, and worked in places like Indiana, Louisiana, even Japan.

“It became clearer and clearer to me that this is what I belong doing,” she said. “This is what I am here for.”

Among her colleagues, whom she represents as chair of the musicians negotiating committee, her story is not unique.

“Our auditions are not local auditions, they are advertised nationally, and people come from all over.”

That thought has her concerned with the proposed contract the symphony is offering its musicians.

The San Antonio Symphony employs 72 full-time musicians. After months of negotiations the symphony put forward what they called their last-best offer which would reduce the size of the symphony down to 42 full-time musicians with a contingent of 26 part-time musicians.

“The board of the symphony is committed to basically be living within its means," said Corey Cowart, San Antonio Symphony executive director. "That we have to agree to budgets that are still aspirational, but, more importantly, achievable."

The musician’s union rejected the offer.

“That’s not what people auditioned for, that’s not what people accepted, that’s not what people moved here for,” Goree said. “And so, I would be very surprised if a large number didn’t leave, I mean basically anyone who could leave would leave.”

“We’re always worried about losing people,” Cowart said. “That has to be a concern for any orchestra.”

Cowart said that though the negotiations came about because of the pandemic, the offer is part of a long-term goal the board has of making the organization more sustainable. He said they have an operating budget in a normal year of around $8 million, but ticket sales only bring in just under $3 million.

“Ultimately, there is no way of artistic excellence, or no path to artistic excellence if we don’t have a viable organization,” Cowart said.

The board of the San Antonio Symphony voted to declare an impasse, imposing their last best offer. The Musician’s Society of San Antonio responded by calling a strike.

“Those terms will be the destruction of the San Antonio Symphony, and the musicians will not be complicit in the destruction of the san Antonio symphony,” Goree said. “So, we really didn’t see that we had any choice.”

Cowart said no shows have been delayed or cancelled yet, but it’s something they may have to consider if an agreement is not reached before long.

“We have to come to a mutually agreed upon agreement with the local union and with our musicians to have them back on stage,” he said. “We can’t play without them.”

Goree pointed out that the quality of life offered by a full symphony is a way of attracting businesses to San Antonio. But ultimately, it’s other aspirational 11-year-olds – like she once was – that she worries about.

“I speak to audience members and there is always at least one from a middle school or high school orchestra who are there as a class with their teacher. And they are so excited to talk to me and to ask questions and to get their picture made with me,” she said. “This is all in danger of being lost.”

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