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Mayor Chris Coleman, with SPCO board chair Dobson West and Ordway President Patricia Mitchell, announced a tentative agreement earlier this month./Photo by Glen Stubbe
If everything works out according to plan, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra will be back giving concerts on May 9. SPCO musicians are voting on a contract proposal that was formally submitted to them last Thursday. That step took place after the SPCO had made a deal with the American Federation of Musicians on media rights.
Musicians have said they will vote on the contract by U.S. mail, with a deadline of April 29 (next Monday). If the deal is ratified, SPCO board chairman Dobby West said he expects the ensemble can begin rehearsals on May 7 and be back on stage on Thursday, May 9. West has said previously that the program for the first concert after a six-month lockout has not been decided.
A tenative agreement in the long dispute was reached through the help of St. Paul mayor Chris Coleman on April 9. Minimum annual salaries were cut 18.6 percent to $60,000. The size of the ensemble was cut to 28 from 34 musicians and a special retirement package was approved. Concerts were suspended and musicians were locked out Oct. 21 after failing to vote on a management proposal at that time.
Mayor Chris Coleman spoke at a press conference Wednesday at the Ordway Center, flanked by SPCO board chairman Dobson West and Ordway President Patricia Mitchell./Photo by Glen Stubbe
When the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra board of directors met Tuesday afternoon, their agenda was grim. Lacking a contract agreement with musicians, the board would be discussing whether to cancel the rest of the season, perhaps delay the start of the next season and consider the future viability of the organization.
Twenty minutes into the meeting, though, an aide ran in with chairman Dobson West’s laptop computer. He had an email from the musicians negotiating committee that said they would accept terms for a tentative agreement.
“It was an unscripted moment that changed the tenor of the conversation,” West said Wednesday, following a press conference in Ordway Center.
He said the SPCO is now negotiating terms of an electronic media agreement with the national American Federation of Musicians. Once that is complete, the agreement reached Tuesday night can go to a vote of the orchestra.
Logistics still need to be worked out to get musicians back on stage and West gave no timetable.
“Our goal will be to put on concerts, but they are not going to look like the programs that have been published,” he said.
The availability of musicians – some of whom have commitments with other orchestras – and music will determine the programs, West said.
West was joined at the podium by Mayor Chris Coleman, who essentially brokered the deal, and Ordway President Patricia Mitchell. Lynn Erickson, a co-leader of the musicians’ team, was scheduled to appear but said she was ill.
Coleman called the SPCO the “most important cultural institution in St. Paul” and said both sides had to come a long way in their bargaining positions. The financial circumstances nationally for orchestras have changed “fundamentally and dramatically,” Coleman said, as he acknowledged that the musicians took a substantial hit.
“It’s not necessarily palatable to them, but I believe it is necessary,” the mayor said.
Mitchell said the future of the SPCO is critical to the Ordway, where preliminary work has started on a project to build an 1,100-seat concert hall for the orchestra. The contract deal, she said, “is enormously important for that project and for downtown St. Paul.”
In his remarks, West thanked the musicians for working toward a deal that he said keeps the SPCO fiscally sustainable and artistically vibrant.
The key elements of the tentative agreement will cut annual guaranteed salaries to $60,000, reduce to 28 from 34 the roster of the orchestra, institute an enhanced retirement program and allow management to cut overscale payments by up to 20 percent.
West said he had a good conversation Tuesday night with Carole Mason Smith, one of the co-leaders of the musicians’ team.
“It would be unreasonable to expect that the musicians would be jumping for joy,” West said. “But I think they are excited to get back to playing music.”
Coleman and arts adviser Joe Spencer got involved about a month ago after the negotiations had stalled out. He conducted a shuttle diplomacy that was able to hammer out a deal.
Technically, this is a “work and play” agreement and the two sides can continue to nail down small issues until June 30. If there are no other changes, however, this deal will continue through the 2015-16 season.
Musicians at the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra have dialed back their objections to a proposal that was seen as a settlement.
In a letter to interim president Dobson West, the musicians' negotiating committee indicated it could reach a tentative agreement with some adjustments.
The committee has asked management to remove "all material that the American Federation of Musicians has already informed you that we cannot vote on." In general, this has to do with electronic media distribution rights.
The only other request that could kick up some dust is the musicians' demand that any votes of the Artistic Review Committee be secret and be the "absolute and the unqualified obligation of the Society." This has to do with liability for the actions of the committee -- which is largely made up on musicians and makes decisions on discipline.
A management spokesperson said the letter is being reviewed. The board has a 4 p.m. meeting today to discuss the future of the organization in light of the players' rejection on Monday of terms that had been negotiated by Mayor Chris Coleman.
Musicians from the union negotiating team were invited to address a special meeting of the Minnesota Orchestra board of directors later this month.
The invitation responds to a longstanding request from the musicians to speak directly to the board about the contract dispute, which resulted in the players being locked out on Oct. 1. The musicians have repeated the request many times over the six months of the lockout.
The negotiating team said in a statement that it would consider the invitation, pending the answers to questions that it has about the meeting with the board.
No date was set.
With a 5 p.m. deadline looming, the negotiations between musicians and management at the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra have reached the moment of high-stakes brinksmanship. The rest of the season, the start of next season and the future of the orchestra itself could be in the balance.
Mayor Chris Coleman sent a letter to musicians on Friday, in which he claimed he had heard their remaining objections and received what he considered to be satisfactory responses from management. "Therefore, I believe that all remaining local issues between the SPCO management and the musicians that were prohibiting the resumption of the season are resolved," the mayor wrote. He presumed the deal would be recommended to musicians.
On Saturday, the musicians' negotiating team sent the mayor a letter declining the offer. The letter was made public this morning and it said management's proposal differed from Coleman's promises. The musicians also raised other issues and said management should accept an earlier memorandum of agreement that the musicians put forward on March 29.
Management whacked the ball back over the net this morning, claiming it had in fact honored its commitments to Coleman and that its proposal reflected the changes that the Mayor had brokered.
Coleman, in a letter to musicians released early this afternoon, appears to support the management's version of events, stating that "I find that their [management's] proposal meets both their commitment and included everything that I expected."
Coleman reiterates his understanding of conversations that were held last week between him and the musicians, and between him and the board.
He concludes, "I have made all possible attempts to bring this orchestra lockout to a resoltuion. I have reviewed the Society's proposal and your feedback on that proposal, and it appears to me that all of these issues have been resolved...None of your remaining concerns, in my opinion, rise to the level of importance that would be worth jeopardizing the long-term viability of this orchestra."