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St. Paul settles

0 Robert Levine

After an extremely confusing few days reading the press coverage of whether or not a deal brokered by St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman would be accepted by the musicians, it appears that it was:

The agreement came even as the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra Board was meeting in executive session to discuss canceling the rest of the orchestra season.

Interim SPCO President Dobson West says that when the message came though that musicians were open to a deal, it changed the whole character of the meeting.

…The agreement states the musicians’ negotiating committee will recommend musicians accept a management contract offer made last week. If accepted, the contract will cut each musician’s base pay by $15,000 a year

“It is a significant pay reduction,” says musician negotiating committee member Carole Mason Smith.

The deal would also reduce the size of the orchestra from 34 members to 28, Smith said. The reduction in numbers will be achieved through a retirement incentive package. The offer does include more artistic control of the orchestra for the musicians.

For management, it reduces costs by over $1 million a year, which it says it needs to keep the SPCO financially viable.
…Smith says both sides agree the musicians vote will not happen until after SPCO management reaches an agreement with the national union, the American Federation of Musicians, or AFM, about broadcast and Internet usage of SPCO material.

For those who follow orchestra negotiations, there are a lot of holes in this picture. What, for example, is “more artistic control of the orchestra for the musicians” code for? I was surprised, though, at the importance that the SPCO board placed on electronic media rights; it looks to me as if the parties have been within compromise distance on basic economic issues for some time now, and that media issues were a prominent obstacle to reaching a deal.

It’s not uncommon in labor negotiations to have two types of issues, which might conveniently be called “practical issues” and “issues of principle” by proponents (or “ideological issues” by those on the other side). Economics are usually the first kind. The second kind are things like lessening job security, management rights, and the like. Proposals on such issues often (not always) come from a sense by one side of how things ought be be, just… because, rather than because of any looming practical consequences of not changing the way things were.

Many of the SPCO board’s original proposals seemed of the ideological/principled type. Of those, the media issues were held onto longest, which is odd, because they were likely (in my view, at least) to have the least practical effect. There is a belief held amongst some in the orchestra management community that electronic media is somehow the key to the future, and one that managements can’t unlock without the ability to use unfettered by restrictions or additional payment. It would seem that the SPCO board bought into that view.

One little-noted aspect of this settlement was the timing. Something I learned in our dispute in 1993-94 is that, at some point, managements begin to realize that an ongoing labor dispute is going to make it very hard to sell tickets for next season. This doesn’t happen often, as generally orchestra labor disputes happen in the fall. But, when they extend for months, this kind of thing begins to happen:

The on-going dispute is hampering planning for next year’s season, too. SPCO Interim President Dobson West told MPR:

“We would be in a position where we really can’t sell tickets unless we are really sure we are going to have an orchestra, and we won’t be able to raise money if we don’t have a season and that would put us in a very bad position. And put us in a position where we would really seriously need to look at suspending operations.”

It doesn’t appear that the thinking of the Minnesota Orchestra management and board have reached that level of sophistication yet.


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