Musicians mull 'play-talk' deal with St. Paul Chamber Orchestra

  • Article by: GRAYDON ROYCE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 12, 2013 - 7:59 PM

If they accept, concerts would resume while negotiators hammer out a final contract.

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Jan. 23: Members of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and Minnesota Orchestra filled the committee hearing room where the Minnesota House Commerce and Consumer Protection Committee was examining the economic impact of employee lockouts.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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Musicians at the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra are mulling a "play and talk" proposal from management. The union has until Monday to respond.

The proposal, which would end the lockout of musicians that began Oct. 21, is intended to preclude canceling more of the SPCO season.

In mid-January, management canceled concerts through March 23. If both sides agree, the season could resume sooner than that.

"When we canceled, we said we would do our best to add concerts back to the schedule, and we continue to hold that view," said Jessica Etten of the SPCO, "but it has to be negotiated."

One scheduling concern is that some musicians are playing elsewhere on a freelance basis.

In an e-mail, Carole Mason Smith, head of the musicians' bargaining committee, said her group is studying the proposal and asking for clarifications.

The proposed "talk and play" period would extend to June 30, essentially salvaging the final one-third of the orchestra's season. Should the musicians approve the proposal, negotiations would still continue toward a new contract to replace the one that expired last June.

The terms of the package include a 28-player ensemble, a retirement program for players 55 or older, and a guarantee that no current musician would lose his or her job.

On salary, the SPCO offered two alternatives:

• A guaranteed annual amount of $50,000 with $1,000 increases in the following two years, and a guaranteed overscale of $12,500 for current musicians.

• A guaranteed annual salary of $56,000, again with $1,000 bumps the next two years, but with no mention of guaranteed overscale. Of course, individual musicians can negotiate overscale.

The distinctions are intended to address musician concerns that a two-tier wage system was being set up in which new players would receive a lower rate of pay, with no overscale guarantee. The choice is whether current musicians want to accept a lower overall guarantee.

Henson quizzed at Capitol

Meanwhile at the State Capitol, members of the House Legacy Committee had questions for Minnesota Orchestra chief executive Michael Henson about money the orchestra has received from the State Arts Board.

In fiscal 2012, the orchestra received about $1 million in state contributions, including $692,000 from the Cultural Heritage and Legacy fund. Union musicians, who have been locked out since Oct. 1 in a separate contract dispute, question whether the management is using state money to fund operations during the lockout.

Henson repeated a statement he made at another legislative hearing last month: The orchestra has sequestered all state contributions and will not use those funds until a contract is reached.

Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, took the questioning in another direction when she asked Henson about statements he made to the House Capital Investment Committee in 2010. At that time, Henson said the orchestra's finances were stable and the state eventually provided $14 million towards a building project.

"One thing that haunts me is the coincidence of timing of the lockout and the building project," Hausman said.

Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, picked up that thread and asked Henson if the orchestra was aware of the substantial financial challenges it faced (deficits of $.2.9 million and $6 million in the past two fiscal years) when he appeared before the bonding committee.

"We were using the endowment to stabilize the budget and we did not know if the economy would recover quickly or more slowly," Henson said.

Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, the Legacy Committee chair, said she expects more hearings on the question of state money going to organizations involved in labor lockouts.

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299

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