A string of orchestral developments

If ever there was a day you needed a scorecard to follow the wrinkles of the Twin Cities two orchestral conflicts today was that day.

Early on came news that the American Federation of Musicians has filed an unfair labor practices complaint against the Saint Paul Chamber Society, the formal name given to SPCO management.

A release from the AFM put it this way:“The SPCO has demanded the AFM agree to permit the unlimited use of all recorded audio and video content made since the inception of the orchestra in 1959, but the employer has repeatedly refused to identify the titles of the recorded works and the identities of the musicians and artists who performed the recordings. The AFM is the exclusive collective bargaining representative for electronic media services for SPCO musicians, and for all other union orchestras throughout the US and Canada.”

“Apparently, the SPCO board is more interested in withholding wages, health care, and pension benefits from the orchestra than answering questions about its contract demands,” said AFM International President Ray Hair. “Rather than nurture and protect an artistic treasure, the SPCO board has inflicted pain and suffering, destroying the lives of musicians who have brought beauty to the Twin Cities area for more than 50 years.”

It took SPCO management a while to respond to this, and before they did came the next orchestral nugget: the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra will play two concerts tomorrow in Forest Lake High School, under the baton of Assistant Principal Bass William Schrickel who is an experienced conductor with both the Minnesota Orchestra and the St Cloud Orchestra. The Young People’s Concerts replace similar events cancelled as part of the ongoing dispute between management and musicians.

“One of the most devastating things about this lockout is the impact it has had on our educational concerts. The musicians feel it is vital that we do whatever we can reach as many kids as possible while this lockout continues, and we’re happy to bring music to the entire state of Minnesota again.” Principal cellist Tony Ross said in a release.

Even as the dust was settling on that announcement, Interim SPCO President Dobson West put out more news in another release to SPCO patrons:

“As you’ll recall, we asked the Musicians for a response to our recent play and talk proposal by yesterday at 5 p.m. We did receive a response from them in the form of a request for further information. In this response they also agreed to additional in-person meetings. Last night we provided answers to their questions and offered to resume meetings next Monday, February 25. We look forward to continuing the discussions and remain hopeful that we are making progress toward a solution.”

This is actually a much simplified account of what happened. Musicians, who initially questioned whether the management was offering a true play and talk proposal where musicians present concerts while negotiations continue, responded with no fewer than five pages of questions. It’s indicative of how many issues are yet to be resolved. The musicians also asked for management to respond to some of their suggestions which have not yet been discussed.

The ball is now back in the musicians court, and they have yet to formally respond to today’s offer. However last week they offered to meet with management at any time after Thursday 21st at any time in an effort to prevent the cancellation of more concerts, so it seems likely they will agree to meet next week.

It was only later in the afternoon that the SPCO management responded with a statement about the AFM complaint.

“The SPCO views electronic media as a means of furthering its long-term commitment to reach as many people as possible through its music. Electronic media covers a variety of topics, from our Minnesota Public Radio broadcasts to our innovative free online Listening Library. With the longstanding support of its musicians, the SPCO has been a leader among orchestras in reaching new audiences through media.”

“We have consistently requested that the American Federation of Musicians bargain with us over issues important to our negotiations for a new contract. The AFM has refused to do so and its actions in this regard violate the Union’s duty to bargain in good faith under the National Labor Relations Act. We look forward to presenting our case to the NLRB and expect our position will be fully vindicated.”

In an interview with MPR the AFM’s Ray Hair said he expects the NLRB will gather information and decide whether to act upon the complaint within 45 days, unless there are developments in the meantime which change the situation.

  • Maxwell

    The musicians seem to be capable of holding concerts without “The Man” looking over their shoulder, so why not just leave and have their own group? I mean, if it REALLY is all about the musicians and they are responsible for it all, they should have no problem going on their own. I’m sure they’ll collect that $135,000 / year salary without the aid of sponsors, benefactors and contributions.

    Meanwhile, the MN Orchestra can start the process of hiring new musicians — and believe me, there is a plethora of great choices — and begin rehearsals for the 2013-14 season over the Summer.


  • R. Daves M.Ed.

    In response to Mr. Maxwell, the point of having a well managed non-profit arts organization is to allow the Musicians and Music Director the time and freedom needed to produce music of the highest caliber and to make it possible for them to take creative risks, commission new works, record, et al. The elite musicians of both Twin Cities ensembles have shown they have the wherewithal to do the heavy lifting of producing, organizing, putting on great performances.

    I am certain management could not audition and hire on their own replacement musicians of equal ability, if for no other reason than they do not have the years of musical training or “ears” for it.

    Many have the skills necessary to manage, very few have the skills to perform.

  • Randall

    In a labor dispute of this length and with this much rancor, both sides (management and workers) damage their futures. This is relevant to Crystal Sugar, the Minnesota Wild, the St Paul Chamber Orchestra, and any other business entity, nonprofit or for profit.

    It is very sad that management continues to act like the lock-out is not their responsibility.

  • Terry Carlson

    Mr. Maxwell, if you think anyone (other than a few inattentive board members) is going to purchase tickets for concerts by a replacement non-union orchestra, I think you’ll be in for a rather large surprise.

  • Maxwell

    In response to R. Davies:

    As I said, the choices for new musicians are limitless, and the “ears” would, of course, belong to Vänskä and the artistic staff.

    Just remember that for every orchestra with its quota of musicians on stage, there are at least 100 more musicians who are just as good but missed the audition cut off point.

    In response to Carlson:

    I think you’re forgetting a couple of things:

    1) No matter how many times they are labeled as a “top tier” orchestra, they were not selling out shows like one. It was all too common for me to see empty seats when I attended my 6+ concerts a season. People tend to forget their attendance statistics. Especially the musicians when looking for a salary bump.

    2) Many would argue the fact that they are Union is what’s causing most of the trouble in the first place.

  • Nick


    Did you know that Louisville Symphony Management did precisely what you were writing above last year, locking unionized musicians out and holding auditions for replacements. They advertised every place they can find, even Craigslist. Guess what happened, no one came to audition. What do you think your brilliant idea would have different outcome?