As deadlines near, developments in contract struggles at MnOrch and SPCO

There were developments in the contract battles at both the Minnesota Orchestra and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra Tuesday.

In Minneapolis, with just days left in the current musicians contract, Minnesota Orchestra management delivered what it called its final offer to musicians.

It is unchanged from managements first contract proposal in that it would cut the average annual pay of musicians from $135,000 to $89,000, but Minnesota Orchestra President Michael Henson says it “clarifies” a number of work conditions, and includes a reduction in the guaranteed number of musicians in the Orchestra .

Henson says it’s been almost six months since the initial proposal was delivered to musicians and they have not yet delivered a formal response. He says this final offer is being made in preparation for the contract deadline at the weekend, but declined to say whether these are first steps towards a musicians lockout.

“I think the reality is that is speculation until we actually reach the first of October and we are waiting a response from the union and our musicians,” he said.

Henson says the cuts are necessary to create a more sustainable financial model for the future. Musicians at the orchestras in Atlanta and Indianapolis are both currently locked out by management as a result of their contract disputes.

A representative of the musicians said they are reviewing the proposal and have no comment.

Later in the afternoon musicians at the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra released a new counter-proposal in their contract negotiations. The offer comes just days after management rejected an earlier musicians proposal because it didn’t cut costs by $1.5 million dollars a year. Management says that’s the figure it needs for financial stability, and has suggested a 15 percent pay cut, and a reduction of the size of the orchestra.

Musicians negotiating committee chair Carole Mason Smith says the proposal offers total salary reductions of 700-thousand dollars over three yearsthe proposal offers total salary reductions of 700-thousand dollars over three years. It then reaches the $1.5 million target using $3-million earmarked by management for a buy-out of musicians over the age of 55. Mason Smith says this would maintain the SPCO’s artistic quality by keeping experienced players in place.

“We don’t want to destroy the orchestra,” she said. “We feel that strongly that we want the money that they have, they say they have, to buy people out, make people leave, make people go away, we want them to use that money to preserve the quality of the orchestra.”

She says the proposal would also give the SPCO management time to work on building the organizations endowment. Musicians are also asking for an increase in ticket prices, and a reduction for surpluses they say are built into the management proposal.

A representative of management said the board is reviewing the document, and declined to comment for the moment. The SPCO contract runs out on Saturday September 30th, and further contract talks are scheduled for Saturday and Sunday.

  • B. Ollmann

    The Minnesota Orchestra has a reputation for being one of the top orchestras in the world. They have the sixth *largest* endowment of any orchestra in the United States. Their management is spending upwards of $52 million on renovations to orchestra hall, and they recently reported (to their donors) that they had successfully raised $97 million for the “Building for the Future Fund.” (They have repeatedly refused to do an independent financial analysis to account for this money.) The CEO of the orchestra, Michael Henson, said just last week “that no immediate financial crisis exists.”

    Why, then, a proposal for such an enormous cut in musicians’ pay (not to mention huge changes to their working conditions, etc)? There is no world-class Minnesota Orchestra without these world-class musicians. It appears that the MN Orch management is simply trying to take advantage of the current economic climate as an opportunity to screw over the musicians.

  • Marilyn Biery

    Thank you for delving into the details of these contract negotiations. I am curious to know why the SPCO feels it is necessary to buy out musicians 55 and older. And, can you tell us what the ramifications will be if, say, one of the over-55 SPCO musicians does not accept the buy out? Will they be able to keep their jobs with any kind of security? I would be interested to know what the SPCO board says about that buy out – why is it necessary, what are the details, and what happens if it is not taken?

  • Dobson West, SPCO President and Board Chair

    Good questions Marilyn. We’re happy to provide some answers for you.

    Per the request of our Musicians, we spent the last several months meeting with major donors to find out if there was additional funding available for the SPCO. We learned that our donors are not willing to give us more to sustain a status quo in which our expenses are out of alignment with our revenues, but they are willing to provide special, one-time funds to ease the transition to a new sustainable model. This is why we proposed this special retirement package that could reach as high as $200,000 for an experienced SPCO musician.

    The special retirement package being offered is completely voluntary. The SPCO is offering this in recognition of the significant contributions made by our many long-time Musicians and the major change that we are proposing. If eligible musicians do not decide to retire, they would remain members of the orchestra. However, we must acknowledge that we are also proposing to reduce the size of the Orchestra to approximately 28 positions, (throughout its history the SPCO has ranged from the low 20s to 35 musicians) preferably through voluntary retirements and attrition. If we must eliminate positions, we will provide $100,000 severance package.

    These are very challenging financial times requiring difficult decisions, but we are confident that by working collaboratively with our Musicians we can come to a solution that will ensure the SPCO’s artistic vibrancy and financial sustainability.