Fort Worth Symphony musicians go on strike, putting upcoming shows at risk
The music has stopped for the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra.
The musicians officially went on strike at 12:30 p.m. Thursday, and symphony management subsequently canceled this weekend’s concert series featuring guest violinist James Ehnes. Ticket holders were being contacted by FWSO personnel and were asked to hold on to their tickets.
The strike, which was authorized by union members on Tuesday evening, comes one day after the orchestra management issued its “last, best and final offer” in contract talks. The offer was characterized by union leadership as the same proposal that musicians voted to reject on Sunday evening.
“We want our audiences and the citizens of Fort Worth to know how much we regret that we are forced to take this extreme step,” Julie Vinsant, a bassist and member of the American Federation of Musicians Local 72-147’s negotiating committee, said in a statement.
“We call on our management to come back to the table so that we can continue providing great music for our great city. We are very thankful for your continuing steadfast support.”
In a statement released Thursday afternoon, orchestra President and CEO Amy Adkins said the FWSO Association was “baffled” by the musicians’ decision to strike since, she said, “the union’s own bargaining team agreed to a tentative contract last week during labor negotiations overseen by an independent federal mediator.”
The orchestra employs 65 full-time musicians with an average salary of $62,000 and health benefits. The proposed contract that musicians rejected included a significant pay cut in the first year and then small, incremental pay raises in the following three years. By the fourth year, the pay increases would have resulted in principal players being paid more than $70,000 a year.
The union maintains that the resulting pay would still be lower than it was in 2010, when musicians took a 13.5 percent pay cut to help weather effects of the recession.
On Thursday afternoon, dozens of musicians union members picketed outside Bass Hall. They carried signs declaring they were on strike and wore green T-shirts that read “Growth not Cuts,” their slogan throughout the negotiations.
A cellist carried a cello painted green and decorated with the words “Growth Now.”
The musicians walked up and down the sidewalk along Fourth Street between Calhoun and Commerce streets, catching the attention of passing drivers and pedestrians.
About 2:30 p.m., when the mercury read 95, employees of from Thai Tina’s restaurant in the Embassy Suites hotel across the street showed up to hand the pickets free egg rolls, cold water and sodas.
“Thai Tina’s is a very good friend with the orchestra,” assistant manager Lakeisha Spencer said, adding that many of them frequent the restaurant before evening performances. “We’re big supporters.”
Joining the pickets was Tim O’Connor of Oklahoma City, president of the Oklahoma Labor Federation, who said he heard about the musicians’ strike from the Tarrant County Labor Council and decided to march in solidarity.
“I have a sympathetic heart for people who take that step [of striking] to try to get justice,” he said.
By 3:15 p.m., the musicians were missing their afternoon rehearsal, and they had no plans to go inside.
“I’m afraid now that we’re on strike, there’s no rehearsal,” said union president Stewart Williams. But, he said, they would have agreed to play the weekend concerts had management agreed to continue talks.
“All we want to do is continue negotiating, continue working to resolve this,” he said, “and we’ve been told that it’s over; no more negotiations. We’ve got a ‘last, best and final offer’ that tells us we’ve got to take more cuts.”
Adkins said orchestra management had no plans to meet with the union to discuss a new contract.
“They have clearly stated they will not agree to anything except raises in every year, and that is something we are not going to be able to do financially,” Adkins said.
It’s not just the musicians, she said, noting that the pay of the orchestra staffers has been frozen for several years and they have received no pension funding.
The orchestra is projecting a $700,000 operating deficit for the 2016-17 season. The symphony finished its most recent season with a $500,000 deficit, $300,000 less than projected, partly because of better-than-expected ticket sales for the Concerts in the Garden.
Management and the union have been in federal mediation since July and in contract negotiations for more than 15 months. In January, the musicians authorized a strike after management said it would impose a concessionary contract for the rest of the performance season. But the two sides reached a temporary agreement, which expired in July.
Nine months ago, Adkins laid out for the Star-Telegram reasons why management said it needed to cut musicians’ pay, including loss of performance fees from other performing arts organizations, decreases in corporate giving, endowments that were hit by the downturn in the oil and gas industry, and increased rental costs at Bass Hall.
“No matter what we are doing to improve matters, the setbacks have erased everything we’ve done and then some,” Adkins said in January.
Two fundraising campaigns helped minimize past years’ deficits, she said, but those sources dried up.
The musicians union argues that management has not proved that it has a plan for growth, which, the union says, is causing the departure of musicians from the orchestra.
“If we don’t get the orchestra growing again, this orchestra is going to diminish,” assistant principal bassist Paul Unger said Thursday in an interview outside Bass Hall.
“We’re not going to get the world’s best musicians to move to Fort Worth to make it their home, be a part of this community. … The musicians feel we have a responsibility that the future generations will have a world-class orchestra.”
Adkins has maintained that the symphony has comprehensive fundraising plans that are ongoing and targeted.
The orchestra’s next performance is scheduled for Sept. 16-18, when it is supposed to perform for the first time at the Winspear Opera House in Dallas with the Texas Ballet Theater. Adkins said Thursday that symphony management worked with the ballet company to develop a contingency plan for next weekend, and orchestra Music Director Miguel Harth-Bedoya will conduct the performances even if the musicians are still on strike.
“We don’t have any plans to cancel future concerts,” Adkins said, “but we have to evaluate that as we go along.”
Staff writer Courtney Ortega contributed to this report, which includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.