St. Paul settles

After an extremely confusing few days reading the press coverage of whether or not a deal brokered by St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman would be accepted by the musicians, it appears that it was:

The agreement came even as the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra Board was meeting in executive session to discuss canceling the rest of the orchestra season.

Interim SPCO President Dobson West says that when the message came though that musicians were open to a deal, it changed the whole character of the meeting.

…The agreement states the musicians’ negotiating committee will recommend musicians accept a management contract offer made last week. If accepted, the contract will cut each musician’s base pay by $15,000 a year

“It is a significant pay reduction,” says musician negotiating committee member Carole Mason Smith.

The deal would also reduce the size of the orchestra from 34 members to 28, Smith said. The reduction in numbers will be achieved through a retirement incentive package. The offer does include more artistic control of the orchestra for the musicians.

For management, it reduces costs by over $1 million a year, which it says it needs to keep the SPCO financially viable.
…Smith says both sides agree the musicians vote will not happen until after SPCO management reaches an agreement with the national union, the American Federation of Musicians, or AFM, about broadcast and Internet usage of SPCO material.

For those who follow orchestra negotiations, there are a lot of holes in this picture. What, for example, is “more artistic control of the orchestra for the musicians” code for? I was surprised, though, at the importance that the SPCO board placed on electronic media rights; it looks to me as if the parties have been within compromise distance on basic economic issues for some time now, and that media issues were a prominent obstacle to reaching a deal.

It’s not uncommon in labor negotiations to have two types of issues, which might conveniently be called “practical issues” and “issues of principle” by proponents (or “ideological issues” by those on the other side). Economics are usually the first kind. The second kind are things like lessening job security, management rights, and the like. Proposals on such issues often (not always) come from a sense by one side of how things ought be be, just… because, rather than because of any looming practical consequences of not changing the way things were.

Many of the SPCO board’s original proposals seemed of the ideological/principled type. Of those, the media issues were held onto longest, which is odd, because they were likely (in my view, at least) to have the least practical effect. There is a belief held amongst some in the orchestra management community that electronic media is somehow the key to the future, and one that managements can’t unlock without the ability to use unfettered by restrictions or additional payment. It would seem that the SPCO board bought into that view.

One little-noted aspect of this settlement was the timing. Something I learned in our dispute in 1993-94 is that, at some point, managements begin to realize that an ongoing labor dispute is going to make it very hard to sell tickets for next season. This doesn’t happen often, as generally orchestra labor disputes happen in the fall. But, when they extend for months, this kind of thing begins to happen:

The on-going dispute is hampering planning for next year’s season, too. SPCO Interim President Dobson West told MPR:

“We would be in a position where we really can’t sell tickets unless we are really sure we are going to have an orchestra, and we won’t be able to raise money if we don’t have a season and that would put us in a very bad position. And put us in a position where we would really seriously need to look at suspending operations.”

It doesn’t appear that the thinking of the Minnesota Orchestra management and board have reached that level of sophistication yet.


About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

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