SPCO musicians take their case to the Fair

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Cameras surround SPCO musicians playing at the State Fair (All MPR images/Euan Kerr)

People passing the AFL CIO building on the State Fairgrounds in Falcon Heights got a treat today as eight members of the SPCO played a half hour concert.

You had to look closely, but it was also a labor rally of sorts. Supporters passed out leaflets outlining musicians concerns as the music rose above the crowds flowing in from the nearby front gate.

“We are just trying to remind people what we do, that we do sweet music,” said Carole Mason Smith. “It would be such a tragedy to lose all of this.”

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Smith is chair of the musicians contract negotiating committee. She and the others at the fair were also trying to raise awareness of what they feel is an unfair proposal coming from management. The hand-outs claim the latest proposal includes a 57% and 67% salary cut for musicians in the first year of a new contract. Smith says that would cripple the orchestras ability to retain and recruit new players. She said the proposal will ratchet down the number of days musicians would play.

“Everybody who knows orchestras knows the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra,” she said. “And the thought of it being dismembered is horrendous.”

A small but enthusiastic crowd lapped up the music, and when asked said they supported the musicians.

Christina Clark from White Bear Township says the SPCO offers a musical experience no-one else can offer.

“Because they play together so well, and so seamlessly as a result of playing all the time together, and as a family of musicians together, within their union,” Clark said. “What the Chamber Orchestra is proposing to do would eliminate that kind of family sound and high level of performance.”

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The Fair event represents a ramping up by the SPCO musicians as they approach the September 30th deadline when their current contract runs out. Carole Mason Smith hopes supporters will increase their donations to the SPCO and urge management to reconsider the offer they have on the table.

“I don’t know how they arrived at those numbers,” said SPCO Interim President Dobson West, “but they are not correct numbers. We have never proposed that kind of a magnitude of a cut.”

Sitting in his office in downtown St Paul, West said with the organization facing large deficits in coming years it needs to make some real financial change.

“We have reduced our other expenses as much as we can” he said, “And we need to address the musician contract during these negotiations.”

West said musician salaries currently make up 40 percent of the SPCO’s budget. He also said that he has contacted the SPCO’s major donors and is looking at other ways to fit together the financial puzzle.

“While we still need to bring the expenses in line with our sustainable revenues, there are a variety of ways we can do this,” West said, “And we will bring an entirely different form of proposal to the musicians.”

The next negotiating session is scheduled for September 10th.

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Back at the Fair a new, and very young fan danced to the music, apparently entranced by the sight and sounds he was experiencing. His delight attracted the attention of the owner of many cameras in the area, and produced many smiles.

It was a very genteel labor rally, but as if to underline the seriousness of the situation news arrived from Indiana that the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra management has proposed to its musicians to reduce its number and go part time.

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