SPCO locks out union players, quieting 2nd orchestra

  • Article by: GRAYDON ROYCE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 21, 2012 - 11:16 PM

Members of both world-class orchestras that call Minnesota home were locked out of their concert halls in contract disputes.

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The musicians of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, shown presenting a free concert Oct. 2, were locked out Sunday night.

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

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The Twin Cities' distinctive status in the world of classical music took a turn toward dubious Sunday.

As of 6 p.m., members of both world-class orchestras that call Minnesota home were locked out of their concert halls in contract disputes.

Union players at the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra did not vote on an offer from management, and the board of directors shut the doors and canceled concerts through Nov. 4. In a lockout, players may not report for work and they receive no pay.

Musicians at the Minnesota Orchestra were locked out Oct. 1 after the union unanimously voted to reject what management had characterized as its final offer. So for the first time since the SPCO launched in 1959, neither orchestra will be playing for at least the next two weeks.

"After 10 months of negotiations, the Union and the Society agree that the SPCO faces a significant financial challenge, but the Union continues to reject that a significant reduction in the cost of the contract must be part of the solution," said SPCO President Dobson West in an e-mail statement Sunday night. "As a result, we are not close to an agreement."

Contract disputes at both the Minnesota Orchestra and the SPCO do make the Twin Cities unique in that both major orchestras are locked out. However, both Atlanta and Indianapolis symphony orchestras endured lockouts this fall. In Chicago, a short strike ended when musicians agreed to small raises.

"We're very disappointed and very perplexed that management has decided to take this step," said Carole Mason Smith, head of the musicians' negotiating committee, on Sunday night. "We made offers to continue to talk and play that were rejected and we're sorry the community has to suffer like this."

Back and forth last week

St. Paul's contract expired June 30, although a clause provided for most terms to extend for 90 days. After the last bargaining session, on Oct. 12, management indicated it wanted a vote on its final offer. Last week, it notified players that they would be locked out if they did not agree to the terms by Sunday.

That prompted a letter to West from Brad Eggen, president of the Twin Cities Musicians Union. Eggen's letter said the earliest the players could vote on the proposal was Oct. 31, and was contingent on the union receiving answers to several information requests.

Smith said the reason for the delay was that many players are out of town because this was a scheduled dark weekend.

"They [management] knew that, but they went ahead and made the deadline," Smith said. "We have people playing in Europe, New York, Chicago, Detroit. They took work because they knew we would have this week off."

Smith said last week that management's offer would damage the ensemble's artistic quality for years to come.

"They want to decrease the number of musicians; they want to cut salaries by 33 percent; they want to buy out the most experienced musicians; and they want to pay new musicians $50,000 per year. You cannot retain or recruit quality musicians under this model," Smith said.

Players have proposed taking lesser salary cuts and have asked management to consider raising ticket prices, which are among the lowest in the country. Former SPCO president Bruce Coppock initiated lower prices years ago to attract audiences, reduce marketing costs, turn patrons into donors and lure support from foundations.

West argued Friday that raising ticket prices not only goes against the SPCO's mission but is, in fact, financially counterproductive.

"Our net ticket revenue is actually higher than before," West said in an interview. "Institutional donors are very focused on how well we are serving the community. Lower ticket prices and accessibility -- that is really important to our funders."

Ticket holders for concerts in the next two weeks will receive e-mails about their options, and information will be posted on the SPCO website.

Smith said the union has offered five dates for negotiations in November, but nothing has been scheduled.

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299

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