By Ronnie Cohen
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Musicians of the Grammy-winning San Francisco Symphony went on strike on Wednesday after contract talks with management deadlocked, threatening a planned U.S. East Coast tour featuring concerts at Carnegie Hall in New York and the Kennedy Center in Washington.
The orchestra's management canceled a scheduled Thursday matinee concert of Mahler's Ninth Symphony when all 103 musicians - the entire group belongs to the union - skipped a Wednesday rehearsal, the two sides said.
Symphony spokesman Oliver Theil said management planned to offer a revised contract proposal during a meeting set for Thursday with a federal mediator, but the musicians chose to strike before seeing it.
"As of now, the musicians are on strike," Theil said. "We'll have to wait and see if they will hear our proposal on Thursday."
Union spokesman Nathan Ballard confirmed by email that the musicians had begun a walkout.
"We are at a standstill with management," he said. "They have failed to come forward with any proposal whatsoever. We are going on strike effective immediately."
On Tuesday, a handful of the musicians played Beethoven in City Hall to bring attention to the labor dispute, which hinges on wages and benefits.
The musicians voted last week to walk out by next Tuesday, when they are due to leave for an East Coast tour, if no deal were reached by then, Ballard said.
"We hope to be able to break the logjam and go to Carnegie Hall, but management needs to stop dragging their feet," he said on Wednesday.
The symphony's musicians have been working without a contract since February 10, the day they won their 15th Grammy Award.
Management's latest contract offer would keep members' salaries in the top three among U.S. orchestral musicians, alongside those for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Theil said.
San Francisco Symphony musicians earn an average annual salary of $165,000, with a minimum salary of $141,700, he said.
The union says management is out to freeze musicians' wages. Theil said that while the most recent three-year proposal would hold wages at current levels this year, it would raise them in subsequent years. He did not say by how much.
Violist Dave Gaudry said the proposed increases amount to 1 percent in the second year and another 1 percent in the third. He said musicians also were upset at management's attempts to continue capping annual pension benefits and to require that union members pay more for less-desirable health insurance.
Brent Assink, symphony executive director, said concert production, healthcare and pension costs are rising nearly four times as fast as revenues.
Labor unrest among classical musicians has not been confined to San Francisco.
The Minnesota Orchestra in Minneapolis locked out its players in October after it failed to reach a deal with the musicians union over wage cuts, leading to performances being canceled through April 7. Musicians at its cross-town rival, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, are also locked out in a salary dispute.
Last fall, Chicago Symphony musicians walked out only to return 48 hours later when management offered them a 4.5 percent increase over three years, according to symphony news releases.
Gaudry said San Francisco Symphony musicians used regularly to put down their instruments for a week throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and went on strike for nine weeks in 1996.
(Reporting by Ronnie Cohen; Editing by Steve Gorman and Dale Hudson)