Deadline looms for MN Orchestra, SPCO

After months of negotiation, and little progress, both the Minnesota Orchestra and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra face contract deadlines with their musicians this weekend.

At the SPCO negotiations are scheduled all weekend.

Minnesota Orchestra management will meet with musicians on Sunday.

If no settlement is reached, the Minnesota Orchestra could lock out its players on Monday.

All sides claim nothing less than the future of the state’s two leading orchestras hang in the balance.

MPR’s Euan Kerr told Morning Edition host Cathy Wurzer that there are four possible scenarios for the two orchestras: play and talk, a strike, a lock-out, or a declaration of an impasse.

Kerr: Play and talk, which is kind of the industry default is just to keep negotiating and performing, but using the former contract as the status quo. The musicians could strike, the management could declare an impasse and impose its last offer, or it could lock out musicians. These last three options are a lot more high risk.

Wurzer: Lets look at the different disputes, starting with the Minnesota Orchestra. What’s happening there?

Kerr: There seems a likelihood that the orchestra could lock out its musicians at midnight Sunday. Management put an offer to the musicians almost six months ago, which included sizable wage cuts. Musicians have yet to respond to that offer. On Tuesday management upped the ante by delivering what they called a final contract offer to musicians and a message that if there is no agreement by the Sunday midnight deadline musicians will be locked out. Now, management says the lockout language was legalese, and in reality they are open to whatever happens over the weekend.

Musicians said they need more information about the orchestras finances before they can respond the proposal, and they are still calling for an independent audit. However they have scheduled a vote on the proposal on Saturday afternoon. They say the proposal contains such drastic pay cuts that it will damage the orchestra, and lead to an exodus of talent. They say this makes no sense, especially as the orchestra is building a $55 million expansion of Orchestra Hall.

An interesting wrinkle here is the Minnesota Orchestra season opener isn’t until October 18th, so the musicians may have a little less leverage now. If they are locked out they will not get paid. But that means there would still be time for a deal before patrons feel any effect.

Wurzer: So what about the SPCO?

Kerr: Talks between management and musicians are scheduled for both Saturday and Sunday, and both sides say while they are still far apart, they are hopeful there might be a deal. Management is clear it is also looking for big changes. Interim President Dobson West says the SPCO needs to create a new financial reality for itself if it is to survive. He’s proposed a 15% pay cut for musicians, a reduction in the size of the orchestra and a buyout plan for musicians 55 and older. He says the orchestra needs to save $1.5 million a year over the current contract.

Musicians say that plan would lead to the departure of many experienced players and destroy the celebrated sound of the SPCO. They have offered to take pay cuts totaling $700,000 over three years, and then using funds earmarked for the buyouts to reach the management savings target. They say their plan gives the management time to raise more money for its endowment without hurting the artistry of the orchestra. Management said Wednesday that this plan doesn’t work because the buy-out funds can’t be used in this way.

Musicians responded by saying management analysis is faulty and they will continue to press their plan.

The SPCO has two concerts this weekend, and both sides have indicated they would rather play and talk at least for the moment. However this story has had many twists and nothing will be for certain until a deal is done.

Tune in tonight on All Things Considered when MPR’s Chris Roberts looks at the potential impact – both on the orchestras and the economy – if either the Minnesota Orchestra or the SPCO goes on strike or is locked out.