Bass Hall, the musical crown jewel of Fort Worth, is silent this week.
The only music to be found is the slow march of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra waving “ON STRIKE” signs in front of the building.
The orchestra is protesting the 2-7.5 percent pay cuts Symphony Management has proposed for all 67 employed musicians.
A negotiating committee met with symphony management Sunday and Wednesday, but were unable to come to an agreement about the salaries. According to Paul Unger, the assistant principal bass, management gave the same offer both days calling it their “’last, best, final offer.’”
The musicians think otherwise.
All of 67 of them have participated in picketing in rejection of the proposal. Along with the signs, musicians wore bright green shirts that read “GROWTH NOT CUTS” making their stance loud and clear to the community.
FINANCING THE FORT WORTH SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Trouble started in 2010 when the orchestra agreed to a 13.5 percent pay cut. They did it to help out management during the recession with the promise of increased funding and an expanded donor base.
Neither of which has happened.
In June 2015, the Collective Bargaining Agreement expired and negotiations for a new one began. Management demanded an 8.7 percent cut.
The orchestra negotiated into the new year and responded with an open letter to management demanding a stop to the pay cuts and gained over 5,000 signatures on the document.
Negotiations paused when management allowed musicians to keep their previous salaries until August 2016.
This week, proposed pay cuts lowered to 2-7.5 percent, but it wasn’t enough to stop the strike.
In the negotiations this week, management claimed there isn’t enough money in Fort Worth to retain their regular salaries and that donations are low, but Unger doesn’t buy it.
He insists the money is available. Fort Worth’s economy has grown 35 percent since 2010, but the Fort Worth Symphony budget has slumped from $13.1 million to $11.9 million.
Meanwhile, the Fort Worth Opera raised $1 million in the past three months and doubled its donor base. Unger said this is proof that management hasn’t been honest.
The opera, Unger said, has been “aggressive and creative” in reaching out to the public and it’s paid off in only three months.
The orchestra has been asking for an economic plan like this to spark growth, but hasn’t gotten one as they lag behind other symphonies.
Salaries in the orchestra, Unger said, are $20,000 below the national average and $42,000 less than the Dallas Symphony, which performs 20 percent fewer concerts.
The new pay cut is a four-year plan that will lower the orchestra’s overall earnings in 2020 to 5 percent less than they were in 2010.
LESS MONEY, LOWER QUALITY
Lower incomes have made it difficult for Fort Worth musicians to keep performing at the same level as other symphonies.
“We’re not doing less concerts,” Unger said. “Just for less.”
The orchestra played 217 performances last year in 46 weeks compared to Dallas’ 152 with 52 weeks of preparation.
Unger said they play six days a week and perform every weekend.
However, because of the lower salaries, many Fort Worth musicians are packing their instruments to perform elsewhere.
Musicians are leaving at twice the rate they were before the first pay cut in 2010, Unger said. A few months ago, two musicians quit—the principal clarinetist and a cellist.
Because of this migration, they’ve had to work more to make up for lost talent and it’s taken a physical toll.
Half of the orchestra plays hurt, Unger said. These injuries include carpal tunnel, shoulder injuries and tendonitis and can result in shortened careers.
“To try and force musicians to work the same amount for less pay in a shorter amount of time is a recipe for disaster,” Unger said.
Opening night for this season’s concert series was scheduled for Friday night–now it’s off the table.
All three weekend performances have been cancelled by management due to the strike.
“Management says they’re done talking,” according to Stewart Williams, a union officer representing the orchestra.
However, Williams wants them to go back to the table and keep negotiating so the problem can be resolved.
He said he doesn’t understand why management can’t raise money for an orchestra in one of the fastest growing cities in the nation.
“We’re not asking for any unreasonable thing,” Williams said. “We’re asking for a plan that promotes growth so that the quality of the orchestra can be invested in.”
Williams said they have not been able to meet with management again, but there’s still time.
He said the protestors are a “determined group” and will remain on strike until a plan for growth is agreed upon.
It looks like someone will have to change their tune, one way or another.