Sub pay in Minnesota – the blame game

One of the issues at play during the Year of Three Lockouts continues to reverberate around the symphonoblogosphere – the question of pay for substitute and extra musicians, and in particular the reduction in that pay that was part of the Minnesota settlement. Drew McManus called attention to it in a year-in-review post, where he listed it as his pick for “worst of the year”:

Although 2014 was barely underway, it is difficult to overlook the wildly disappointing decision by a majority of Minnesota Orchestra musicians to accept a clause that relegated substitute musicians to second class status by paying them a lower base rate than full time musicians. After withstanding a completely unnecessary and downright cruel 16 month lockout and losing an entire season, the decision to devalue colleagues that have no voting authority on the agreement did little more than encourage bad managers and bad board members to continue treating employees poorly. It was a miserable punctuation to a very sad run-on sentence. Interestingly enough, a majority of readers agreed that paying substitutes less is the wrong thing to do.

In a follow-up piece, he wrote:

  • The agreement which ended the season killing lockout contained a clause that provides for substitute musicians to be compensation at a rate of 90 percent of what full time, contracted members earn. Previously, the MN orchestra had a long history of paying substitute musicians the same per-service rate as their full time colleagues.
  • When asked whether or not the musicians proposed options to maintain substitute parity, even if it meant reducing their own base salary compensation, the musician spokespersons failed to reply to multiple requests.
  • Neither the orchestra committee in place at that time nor their respective AFM Local opted to pursue solution to mitigate the pay disparity outside the auspices of the collective bargaining agreement.

I agree with Drew completely on the principle that subs and extras should be treated fairly, and have said so quite publicly. The only time I ever voted against a contract ratification was solely because that principle had been violated. But I think he’s got hold of the wrong end of the stick here. The musicians are not to blame for the cut in sub pay. The proposal did not originate with the musicians, and according to what I’ve been told, they resisted it until the very end.

It can happen in negotiations that a proposal assumes totemic status for certain decision-makers, and becomes, for one side or the other, a symbol – of victory, of not getting “rolled,” of standing up to the other side, or of other things that really shouldn’t matter. I suspect that reducing sub pay was just such a totem for someone on the employer’s side. The amount of money that the Minnesota Orchestra would save by paying subs less was small compared to the cost of running the institution, and there are real long-term downsides to reducing sub pay. But the concept of “contingent workers” is one that has deep appeal to a certain mindset, and that mindset has trouble understanding why the full-time musicians would be troubled by the concept of paying those workers less. If a key player on the employer side had married the idea of reducing sub pay, it might have been politically impossible for the rest of the employer team to let go of it.

It’s worth remembering that the lockout had already gone on for 16 months. To say that’s a long time to be without a salary or paid health care really underestimates the pain that had already been inflicted on the musicians (and, let’s not forget, the many subs who would otherwise have worked with them during those 16 months).  It’s likely that many musicians had gone through a good chunk of their retirement savings to survive the lockout. It’s likely that many orchestra members, and others, felt that the institution was getting closer and closer to a point at which its continued existence would be in question. (I sure did.) After 16 months, holding out for any reason other than the ones that had caused them not to accept management’s original offer would have been irresponsible. Both they and the institution needed to get back to work simply to ensure their survival.

If, as I suspect,  the management and/or board made reducing sub pay a condition for agreeing to the settlement that ended the lockout, the musicians would have been forced to choose between accepting  something very distasteful to them or having the lockout continue indefinitely – with all the suffering for them and their families, and the risk to their future prospects, that entailed. It would have been irresponsible for the employer to make such a condition, as I suspect they did. It would not have been irresponsible, or selfish, for the musicians to agree to it under that kind of duress.

I don’t like to see orchestras reduce sub pay. I don’t like it when orchestras do it in concessionary bargain (as happened here and in Philadelphia and the Florida Orchestra in 2011), and I really don’t like it when an orchestra that negotiates a good settlement agrees to let management pay for it in part by reducing sub pay. Such a situation happened in my orchestra in 1995. It happened in Los Angeles in 2005.

But it’s unfair to equate those two situations with what happened in Minnesota. A committee negotiating a good contract is in a different world than one negotiating concessions, especially when the other side is driven by ideological, as well as economic, considerations. Put simply, the first committee has choices; the second one doesn’t. An orchestra that gets a nice raise by knowingly putting the screws to subs and extras – who have no job security and almost always make less money than do full-time orchestra musicians  – are acting like the pigs in Animal Farm, and they, and their local unions, and their negotiators, should be ashamed of themselves. The Minnesota Orchestra musicians were not in that situation. They weren’t trying to get an even bigger raise by saying, in essence, “all musicians are equal, but some are more equal than others.” They were trying to survive. I don’t think they needed to prove anything – or justify their actions – to the symphonoblogosphere or anyone else by risking their survival over a proposal to pay subs less. The folks who are to blame for that proposal, and for the end result, were on the other side.

It also matters that, with the orchestra working again, there were subs getting paid  by the Minnesota Orchestra after 16 months of shutdown. Of  course it’s not fair that they’re now making less per service than are the full-time musicians. But it’s likely still the best-paying freelance gig, for the most musicians, than anything else between Chicago and the West Coast. Given the choice between getting 90% of the full-time per-service pay now and a 17th, and 18th, and 19th, and 20th, and who knows how many more-th, month of no work from the Minnesota Orchestra, it’s not obvious why the subs who depend on that work would have chosen the second option.

What about Drew’s point that the musicians could have proposed options to management to preserve pay equity, or set up a system to do it themselves? I think the answer is another question: why is it the musicians’ responsibility to fix the problems that management has chosen to create?  Putting aside the practical problems involved in such a scheme – especially if the union or the musicians are doing it outside of the management payroll system – it’s not in the musicians’ interests to encourage management to think that the musicians will take a pay cut to fix anything management does that musicians might think is unfair or unwise.

The Minnesota Orchestra musicians believed they were being forced to do that already by having to bargain away some of their compensation at a time when management had raised a whole lot of money to pay for a renovation of the hall, while being very cagy indeed about the financial health of the orchestra. It’s inevitable that musicians will pay for management and board mistakes. Concessionary bargaining is based on that fact, and we all accept that it’s appropriate in some situations. In large part we accept it because we accept that mistakes are made even by people with the best intentions. But that doesn’t mean musicians need to volunteer to fix those mistakes. If we agree to our compensation becoming a piggy bank for our employers, we should not be surprised when it gets cracked open.

Update: Drew McManus posted a follow-up this morning (January 9, 2015) to his earlier posts. He was implicitly critical of the failure of the Local and the Minnesota Orchestra musicians to respond to his request for an explanation. I understand his frustration, but, if I were in their shoes, I wouldn’t be inclined to respond either. How the union negotiates for its members is, at the end of the day, between the union and its members.

But he also pointed out a very interesting example of how pay disparities between full-time and substitute musicians could be addressed:

I spoke with Harold Van Schaik, Florida Orchestra Bass Trombonist and Executive Board member Local 427-721 AFM, who described a situation in his orchestra when negotiating their 2010/11 agreement where the musicians felt as though they had no other alternative but to accept a pay disparity during a recent collective bargaining agreement (CBA) negotiation.

“After the ratification, the Local (at the suggestion of Secretary Treasurer Richard Sparrow, also a TFO member) waived work dues assessment on all TFO subs/extras,” said Van Schaik. “We continued to forward the AFM’s share of those dues to [the national offices in New York City] out of the ‘Local’s pocket.’ In the four years since that concessionary agreement, the full time musicians have recovered to beyond the conceded annual salary level and the per-service rate parity returns in the last two weeks of the current season.”

Van Schaik, who was serving as Orchestra Committee chair during that period of time, acknowledged that while the work dues waiver did not fully mitigate the disparity in a dollar to dollar measure, it was what he defined as a gesture to acknowledge the reality and help as much as they could with a solution outside of the CBA.

Admittedly this is a creative solution and has some appeal. But, in the Minnesota Orchestra situation, I’m not sure it was practical. Local 30-73 had suffered a devastating financial blow by having both of its full-time bargaining units locked out for over a year while also having to pay the expenses of two prolonged and difficult negotiations. If they had substantial reserves before the lockouts, they certainly didn’t afterwards.

The Local has legitimate needs for its dues income, which shouldn’t include subsidizing a management’s decision to pay subs less than is affordable or fair. The union should not be a piggy bank to cover bad management choices any more than should the musicians.

(This post updated since original publication)




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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  • On 1/19/14, Drew McManus wrote: “That being said, I’m not certain why it wouldn’t be anything but surprising to see contracted musicians taking from substitute pay in order to bolster their own salary.” This part of the contract (pay for subs) is a relatively small part. Without actually being there, we have no way of assuming how or if the Minnesota Orchestra musicians fought for parity for subs, as the return to work after more than 15 months would have been their priority. We also have no way of knowing what other work rules or conditions were exchanged for maintaining status quo on substitutes. The focus seems to be on what the musicians could or should have done and only serves to put these musicians in a bad light. There is far too little discussion about what the MOA management did, and that is a matter of historical fact. All orchestral musicians owe these musicians a debt of gratitude for their stand and sacrifice.

  • The SPCO-now-in-name-only calls them “Guest Musicians”. Well, given that they were down to 17 (and dropping) remaining musicians, they had to call them something. And of course no retirees need apply.

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