After months of quiet labor talks, the brass at the Minnesota Orchestra and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra took their disputes with musicians public Wednesday, announcing big financial shortfalls they say require major cost cutting.
The Minnesota Orchestra's management posted to its website details of its proposal to union musicians last spring, including a call for a 28 percent musicians' pay cut.
The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra faces "up to $1 million" in deficits, according to a letter from SPCO president Dobson West. He asked musicians to "be part of the solution" during talks leading up to Sept. 30, when the current contract expires.
Minnesota Orchestra's principal trombonist Doug Wright, a veteran negotiator, called all this public disclosure "unprecedented," adding that musicians are "extremely disappointed and rather confused by what happened today."
The stakes are high for each side. Both contracts are being watched nationally for the impact they will have as other orchestras struggle against deficits, declining audiences and institutional costs.
"We've had a lot of questions externally," said Michael Henson, president and CEO of the Minnesota Orchestra, "and we've felt that with a month to go, without having received a counterproposal from the musicians, that we should share this information."
In addition to a big pay cut, Wright said the board's proposal would make more than 250 changes to the contract.
"I don't want to get lost in the weeds," Wright said. "It's easiest to say they are trying to erase 40 years of accrued working conditions."
Richard Davis, the former board chair who is heading the negotiating committee, said the musicians have made their unease clear, but he would like to see a counterproposal.
"I don't know what part of it they don't agree with," Davis said Wednesday. "We've put a stake in the ground, but they could come back and say, 'shrink the orchestra 8 percent and take less pay cuts, or play less weeks.' We would like to know what expense cuts they would take."
Davis also said Wednesday that he expects the orchestra to report a year-end deficit that is larger than last year's $3.9 million. For years, the board covered deficits with draws from its endowment, Davis said.
"That is a situation that isn't sustainable," he said.
Arguments over terms
West, of the SPCO, said in a letter to patrons that "musicians' salaries and benefits comprise the single largest expense item in the SPCO budget." He restated Wednesday that the board is seeking nearly $1.5 million in expense savings from the musicians.
West has posted regular bargaining updates, including proposals from early summer that showed big reductions in both salaries and guaranteed work weeks. That unusual degree of openness resulted in national exposure -- primarily because the proposal was characterized as one that would transform the SPCO into a part-time orchestra.
West disputed that in his letter, saying the SPCO had no intention of cutting the number of concerts or making musicians part-timers.
Carole Mason Smith, head of the musicians' bargaining committee, disagreed with West in an interview Wednesday.
"He can call it semantics," Smith said, "but when you drop your salary from a base of just over $70,000, which is competitive, to a guarantee of 15 to 20 weeks at $1,500 a week, that is more than 50 percent."
Management intends to put forward a new comprehensive proposal at sessions on Monday and Tuesday.
"Two things are informing the offer we'll be making," West said. "We've talked to major donors about their longtime vision and what things would inspire them to increase their giving; and we've listened hard to the objections that the musicians had to our original proposal."
Meanwhile, the musicians at both orchestras have launched websites, hired public relations professionals and taken their good will to the public with free concerts. In St. Paul, a "Save the SPCO" initiative kicked off with a gig at the State Fair. In Minneapolis, Minnesota Orchestra musicians will play a free concert at Lake Harriet on Sept. 16 to "thank the community" for its support.
"We've been overwhelmed and inspired by the support from audience members and musicians," Smith said. "It's now on the radar around the country that this is a serious thing that could happen to the orchestra."
Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299 On Twitter: @graydonroyce