Time is running out for the Minnesota Orchestra and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra to reach new labor agreements with their musicians unions. Both contracts expire at midnight Sunday. Even though the orchestras don't command the crowds professional sports teams do, work stoppages would cause economic pain in their respective hometowns.
The tone of each orchestra's negotiation is quite different, and both still appear a long way from reaching agreement on a new contract.
In St. Paul, there is still major disagreement on how to save the orchestra $1.5 million a year. One of the major sticking points is a buyout fund. Management wants to use that money to fund early retirements and shrink the ensemble. The musicians want that money to fund musician salaries. Both sides are exchanging proposals and expressing hope for a settlement.
No one wants a work stoppage, SPCO interim-President Dobson West said.
"I don't think the musicians want one and I know that we don't want one," West said. "So that's why I think that everybody's working hard to find a solution here."
The chair of the SPCO musicians negotiating committee, Carole Mason Smith, did not want to speculate on what might happen if the two sides are still deadlocked at the deadline but said, "It's still possible to reach an agreement."
Negotiations are scheduled for Saturday and Sunday.
The atmosphere is more tense for the Minnesota Orchestra. The musicians union has yet to make a counter-proposal to managements initial contract offer, even though six months have passed. Management is trying to reduce a $2.9-million deficit and seeking cuts that would slash average annual musician pay from $135,000 to $89,000. Instead of countering, the union has called for an in-depth review of the orchestra's finances. Recently the orchestra said it would lock out the musicians if the union doesn't accept what management is now calling its final offer.
"We've made our proposal, we are now waiting for a response from the musicians to the offer that we've made," said orchestra President Michael Henson. He says the musicians have a decision to make.
The musicians say it is difficult to reconcile the orchestra's negotiating stance with its financial heft. Tim Zavadil, chair of the musicians' negotiating committee, said the orchestra has a $140 million endowment and is raising $110 million, half of which is for a renovation of Orchestra Hall. Zavadil said the musicians would like to continue working under the old contract as they negotiate a new one, and open the season as scheduled on Oct. 18.
"In the industry it's called 'play and talk," Zavadil said. "That's what we would like to do, and that's what we believe our fans and our audience would like to have happen."
The musicians will vote on the orchestra's final offer on Saturday, Zavadil said. Negotiators will meet again on Sunday.
The prospect of a dark Minnesota Orchestra worries Minneapolis officials and downtown businesses alike. According to Minneapolis city figures orchestra-goers spend on average $20 per person whenever they attend performances.
At the Zelo Restaurant on Nicollet Mall, bar manager Michael Persian said the bustling eatery counts on 50 to 60 dinner patrons before every evening concert.
"You could look at anywhere from a few thousand dollars a night to $10,000 maybe per week of lost business or revenue for the restaurant," he said.
Downtown St. Paul is already suffering from a lockout by the National Hockey League of all its teams, including the Minnesota Wild. A work stoppage at the SPCO makes city director of arts and culture Joe Spencer shudder.
"A) I don't think it's going to happen, and b) we just can't let it happen," he said.
Downtown St. Paul's businesses and restaurants rely on the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts being busy seven days a week, Spencer said. SPCO audiences produce a significant chunk of their revenue. There's also an effort by four Twin Cities arts groups, including the SPCO, to raise $75 million to build a new concert hall at the Ordway. So far, $60 million has been raised.
"And if there's a work stoppage at the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra," Spencer said, "it would have a chilling effect on that fund drive as we're in sort of the last stretch of getting to that $75 million goal."
Spencer believes the two parties are making progress and will reach an agreement before the deadline hits at midnight on Sunday.