Two sides in SPCO dispute meet to consider play and talk proposal

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Management and locked out musicians of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra have been meeting all afternoon. It’s the first face-to-face talks the two sides have had in some time. They are trying to hammer out an agreement which may get the musicians playing again, and ultimately lead to a settlement in the long-running contract dispute.

The musicians see this week as really important, as they are concerned management may be about to cancel more concerts, and effectively wipe out the rest of the SPCO season. During the dispute management has been canceling concerts about six weeks out.

In recent days management has been pitching an offer to play and talk, that is resume concerts while the final details of a contract are negotiated. However there are some details in that play and talk proposal which are hard for the musicians to swallow, and that is what they are negotiating today.

They have so much to discuss it’s unlikely they will have a resolution today, but both sides seem eager to keep the talks alive. The musicians say they are prepared to meet every day until they reach an agreement. Before the meeting management said they hadn’t heard the details of how that would work yet, but they want to get a deal too.

The three main sticking points are: pay, how to reduce the size of the SPCO from 34 to 28 positions, and the electronic media agreement, that is the use of SPCO performances online.

The pay issue is complex, because management has proposed not only to cut salaries, but wanted to impose a two-tier system where current musicians will be guaranteed an over-scale payment, essentially a bonus over the rate which any new musicians will get.

The musicians didn’t like that because they said it builds in an inequality. So now management is offering two options: one with the base salary plus bonus for current musicians, and one with a higher base salary and no bonus for everyone. This would keep things equal, but in effect mean an even bigger pay cut for current musicians.

When it comes to the reduction of the size of the orchestra, the musicians have apparently said they are willing to consider it, as long as no-one is fired. Management is offering a retirement package for musicians 55 or older. An important question however is how the SPCO maintains its orchestration, that is making sure they have the right combination of players. Management has offered to create a committee of musicians and management representatives to oversee that mix. A big question here is whether there are sufficient people, and in the right combination, who are willing to retire to make this work.

Finally there is the electronic media agreement, which has been contentious. Traditionally this part of the agreement has been negotiated by the national union, the American Federation of Musicians. However the SPCO management wants to have electronic media be part of the local contract. The AFM filed a grievance against the SPCO last year, and last week filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board accusing the SPCO leadership of unfair labor practices.

Meanwhile over at the Minnesota Orchestra the two sides are still exchanging suggestions about how to do the independent analysis of the the Orchestras finances requested by the musicians. The players say it is necessary before they can consider a possible counter-proposal to management’s current offer.

(SPCO image courtesy SPCO)

  • Sarah

    Interesting – didn’t the musicians want to continue to play and talk last October but mgmt didn’t think that would be fruitful?

    Also, cutting the orchestra from 34 to 28 musicians will seriously impede its quality and flexibility in terms of what it can play. Wonder why mgmt wants to downgrade its reason for existence (and there are over 100 people on the Board, go figure), and who exactly they might want out of there?

  • Greg

    Sarah – you make good points, but there’s nowhere near 100 people on the SPCO board. Emeritus Trustees are ex-board members, and the Governing Members are a donor recognition society, not a true governing board.

  • Carol White

    I appeal especially to Dobson West and the Board. We are all starved for music with this contentious situation still continuing.Please bring back our stellar orchestra – they must all play – and stop the abominable attacks on the musicians.

    I’m also concerned that the Union might get in the way of negotiations between orchestra and board.

    But, Please, Mr. West restore the Orchestra as we know it. Don’t try to get rid of our stellar players, to create a cheaper, inferior orchestra.

    The SPCO is world-renowned for its high quality. Please get them back playing – and in tact!

    Carol White