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Home » Officer Columns » Stand with San Antonio Orchestra Musicians

Stand with San Antonio Orchestra Musicians

  -  AFM International President

I rallied with hundreds of supporters of San Antonio Symphony musicians at their performance hall, The Tobin Center, October 29, following a unanimous strike vote rejecting an attempt to impose pay cuts ranging from 31% to 68%. Following are selections from my speech to the attendees.

As we stand shoulder to shoulder with striking musicians of the San Antonio Symphony, we celebrate the cultural and artistic excellence this orchestra has nurtured here. It’s an inspiration to music lovers everywhere, and on behalf of the entire membership of the American Federation of Musicians, I want to thank the people of San Antonio for all that you have done in support of great music and great musicians.

The relationship between this city and its great orchestra covers more than 80 years, and during those decades, people have gathered together to enjoy great performances that have changed so many lives for the better, for our culture, and for the joy of living in this incredible city, in this culturally diverse region.

In contrast to the beauty of our orchestral performances on one hand and the consolidation of power, property, and the people’s money in the building of a magnificent performing arts center by San Antonio’s ruling class on the other, we’ve seen our wages decline and our benefits dwindle. And we’re seeing this especially where we’re standing tonight, against the backdrop of a worldwide pandemic.

Our full-time jobs are under pressure to become part-time jobs, or to be eliminated, and unfortunately, the folks who manage this performance hall—The Tobin Center—and their lapdogs who run the San Antonio Symphony, have decided that it’s time for the musicians of the orchestra to sacrifice their livelihoods, health, safety, and security of their families; make whatever economic concessions are demanded of them; and kneel at the altar of management.

It’s obvious that the cultural stewards of San Antonio have abandoned the welfare and interests of the artists who perform here, in favor of the financial needs of The Tobin Center itself, and the selfish interests of the people who run it, feed it, and glorify it.

Take the Center’s head honcho, Michael Fresher. Isn’t he supposed to be doing everything possible to help promote, preserve, and protect the interests of the Center’s resident companies, like the symphony, opera, and ballet? Wouldn’t that naturally improve the relationship between the musicians, singers, and dancers of those institutions, their managements, and the community?

Before the pandemic, Fresher announced the creation of Tobin Entertainment to “book and promote more lucrative events and generate more revenue” for the center. If you look between the lines, Fresher is saying the resident companies aren’t making enough money for him.

Of course, Fresher is also CEO of Tobin Entertainment. Instead of filling a date at the center with the symphony, or another resident company, he can book a date on another act where he can take a percentage and make more money.

According to public access documents obtained by the union, The Tobin Center had assets of $172 million as of Halloween (October 31) 2020. Fresher’s annual salary was $342,000 as CEO. How much more money will they pay him to book acts that will compete with the Center’s resident companies? Meanwhile, he and his board are squeezing symphony management and the resident companies for more and more rental fees and a bigger cut of ticket sales to perform in the center.

The irony is that, you, the arts-loving public of San Antonio, were sold a $100 million bond package to lay the foundation for The Tobin Center. This town’s ruling class told you that the premier performing arts organizations based here and the artists who perform with them would benefit, that prosperity is just around the corner, that good times are gonna roll once the new hall gets built, ‘cause everybody will be sitting pretty.

Only it didn’t work out that way. The hall got itself built and the resident companies are suffering. The local politicians and the town aristocracy sold you on building, a palace for the arts, took $250 million out of the community to build it, named it in honor of one family, and now they say they are unable to provide for an orchestra that existed 80 years before first shovel of dirt came out of the ground and before the jackhammers tore down the walls on the site of the old municipal auditorium. But seven years after it reopened as The Tobin Center, it still had $172 million in the bank.

Who are the winners and losers in this deal? Fresher and his staff are certainly winners, with good, high paying jobs. They’ll be grazing in the grass for years.

Losers? The musicians of the San Antonio Symphony. Here’s what they get: less work, less pay, fewer full-time jobs, full-time jobs morphing into part-time jobs, and they get to watch managers get rich. You see, we make the music, while everybody else makes all the money, particularly the managers. I ask you, did you ever buy a ticket to see or listen to a manager manage?

For decades, musicians of the orchestra, management, and the board of directors clashed over the failure to adequately fund the institution, continually making multi-year deals with management, begging to reopen and rebargain the out-years in the contract, always asking musicians to reduce their pay, which they did.

No one in this community can say that musicians refused to work with management to ease the financial pressure. While musicians were reopening and restructuring contract after contract, the community magically dug up $250 million through publicly approved bonds, tax money, property grants, and cash contributions to plan and construct a grand new performance hall.

Meanwhile, symphony management failed (or refused) to raise the money needed to take care of the orchestra. But they managed to take care of the manager, Corey Cowart, another winner in this deal. His comp package rose 38% between 2018 and 2020, from $110,000 to $151,000. During that time, the orchestra struggled to work with their management, promoting The Tobin Center. Cowart, however, was making plans to chop up the orchestra, like this: 72 full-time musicians currently making $35,000 get cut to 42 full-time making $24,000 annually four positions get eliminated 26 musicians remaining go part-time and get $11,000 annually.

So if you survive the purge, you lose either $9,000 or $24,000 during the season.

What a tragedy we have happening here in San Antonio. And all this despite the spirits we’ve raised, the recognition we’ve brought to our benefactors and the community, and the money we’ve raised and made for the businesses in this city, especially The Tobin Center.

I think it’s time for Michael Fresher, Corey Cowart, and their boards to face the music in San Antonio and explain how they can figure out how to fatten up their own wallets, but they can’t take proper care of the musicians of the San Antonio Symphony. The way they treat this orchestra is completely and totally unjustified. They act like they can’t make it from one year to the next unless they screw the musicians.

We must challenge ourselves and the people of this historic city to take care of each other. We must support those who care about us. And I can tell you that no one cares more about San Antonio, Texas, than the musicians of the San Antonio Symphony.

Today, October 29, 2021, thousands of AFM musicians stand together with citizens of the city of San Antonio, AFM Local 23, and with the musicians of the San Antonio Symphony. Thank you for asking me to come to San Antonio today to speak and be with you. God bless the San Antonio Symphony, and God bless you all.

Please Support the Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony

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Checks payable to MOSAS may be sent to:
Musicians of the San Antonio Symphony; 24911 Crescent Trace; San Antonio, TX 78258

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