The longest work stoppage in St. Paul Chamber Orchestra history is over.
After a 191-day lockout, SPCO musicians ratified a three-year contract Monday that cuts base salaries and the size of the ensemble but allows them to resume their season May 9. That leaves one thorny dispute to settle: The Minnesota Orchestra lockout begins its eighth month Wednesday with no talks in sight.
“There’s a sense of relief that we can play again,” said Carole Mason Smith, who led the St. Paul musicians’ negotiating team. “But it’s going to be challenging going forward.”
The two Minnesota lockouts are one of several at U.S. orchestras pinched by finances. Atlanta and Indianapolis reached agreements last fall that trimmed salaries significantly.
The SPCO agreement cuts base salary by 18.6 percent to $60,000 for a 32-week season. Overscale pay — additional compensation for special skills or leadership — was reduced by up to 20 percent. The size of the ensemble was cut to 28 full-timers from 34, although more players can be added as needed. An enhanced retirement package was approved for musicians 55 and older.
Now musicians and management face the task of healing raw feelings, rebuilding their audience and hiring a new SPCO president.
Both sides felt pressure to salvage the remaining 14 concerts of the season after the cancellation of approximately 80 concerts.
“We knew that if we didn’t get back on stage this spring, the consequences next season and further down the road would be so much more destructive,” Mason Smith said.
Dobson West, the SPCO’s board chairman and interim president, acknowledged that “it’s been a very difficult period for everyone.
“I am really pleased we have gotten over this hurdle.”
Regarding two of the challenges ahead, West expressed confidence in audience loyalty and said he believes musicians will still find the SPCO an attractive opportunity. “We think this is a wonderful job artistically,” he said.
Change coming at the top
In a news release announcing the ratification, musicians called for an immediate search for a new SPCO president. “We have a common goal in that regard,” said West, who assumed the presidency after Sarah Lutman resigned in 2011.
Musicians and management reached a tentative agreement April 9, following several weeks of intense negotiations brokered by St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman. Ratification, however, had to wait until a separate deal on digital recordings was struck between management and the national American Federation of Musicians, which oversees electronic media. Union negotiators conducted the vote by mail and ballots were opened Monday afternoon.
Management said the cuts were necessary for an organization that posted a deficit of $895,000 on expenses of $11 million in fiscal 2012. West said management did not achieve its goal of cutting $1.5 million in yearly expenses. The savings will probably be somewhere between $1.1 million and $1.3 million. He said the board has plans to increase endowment funding from donors.
Mason Smith expressed concern about maintaining the SPCO’s artistic quality. “We don’t think this is a cost issue,” she said. “It’s a revenue issue.”
Because of logistics, this weekend’s concerts with violinist Thomas Zehetmair and violist Ruth Killius had to be canceled, making them the final casualties of the lockout. Zehetmair will lead the three concerts May 9-11 that feature cellist Steven Isserlis in Schumann’s Cello Concerto.
The musicians’ contract expired last June 30. A 90-day clause extended the deadline to the end of September, after the ensemble had played five programs. Negotiations continued until Oct. 21, when musicians were locked out. Talks restarted early this year and stalled out in mid-March. Coleman then entered the process as a liaison between the two sides.
Several tense moments remained, none more so than the weekend of April 6-7 when Coleman said he felt all issues had been resolved. Musicians withheld their acquiescence until the afternoon of April 9, when the board of directors met to discuss the future of the organization. Mason Smith said the deal was further refined during talks last weekend.
At the Minnesota Orchestra, meanwhile, negotiators for the musicians told the board of directors last Friday that they would not bargain until management lifts the lockout or withdraws its current proposal.
In all likelihood, the entire season will be lost. Musicians are hoping to gain leverage as the reopening of a renovated Orchestra Hall nears this summer.