Later today representatives of locked out musicians at the Minnesota Orchestra and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra will sit down with representatives of their respective managements to negotiate.
These are the first formal talks in many weeks in the contract disputes which have now led to the cancellation of all concerts through early February.
Euan Kerr has been covering the disputes since the beginning. He spoke with Morning Edition host Cathy Wurzer about the status of the negotiations. The following is an edited transcript:
Wurzer: Does the resumption of talks mean a settlement in either dispute is close?
Kerr: Not necessarily, although given that the two sides in the Minnesota Orchestra dispute have not met since the end of September, and the two sides in the SPCO dispute have not sat down since Nov. 8, even meeting is a step forward. The SPCO musicians have said they have been working on what they have been calling a presentation for when they meet with management. There are apparently ideas to cut expenses at the Orchestra. We don't know what the two sides in the Minnesota Orchestra talks have planned. I have to say that more than once I have heard people on all sides express genuine confusion over why the other side is doing what it is doing, so perhaps this may be an opportunity to find common ground on which they can talk. Also everyone has apparently agreed to a media blackout surrounding the talks in an effort to move the process forward.
Wurzer: A lot of the focus in the dispute has been about money: the managements have proposed large cuts in musicians salaries which they say are necessary to make the organizations viable. Is that still the main issue?
Kerr: Clearly it's a major issue. The SPCO just announced a $900,000 deficit, the Minnesota Orchestra a $6-million deficit. Managements say they need to reshape the Orchestras finances if they are to survive, and they need to do it now to avoid the situation getting worse.
However the musicians, particularly at the SPCO, are arguing that they are fighting to preserve the artistic integrity of their organizations. The players worry that lower salaries will lead to players leaving, and that will hurt the cohesiveness the musicians work hard to establish and maintain over years and even decades. There are also substantial changes proposed over work conditions, which managements say is to make the orchestras more flexible, but the musicians say gives them less job security.
It also has to be said that this has become quite a personal battle for some of the folks involved. Musicians have lost both their salaries and their health insurance as a result of the lockout. Even if the sides can reach some sort of settlement quickly, it's a valid question as to how each orchestra will bounce back after this.
Wurzer: Today's talks are under the supervision of federal mediators: What will that mean for the talks? The mediators are there to help, however they are also trained to draw a session to a close if it's clear no progress is being made.
Kerr: Now some people including former Minnesota Orchestra music director Edo de Waart who came in to conduct two concerts by the locked out musicians a few weeks back, say there needs to be more specialized outside intervention, by people with extensive experience in the arts who can look at both the artistic and financial implications and get all sides to respond to some hard questions about the implications of the choices before each organization.
Wurzer: The lockouts have been going for months now: what are the implications of not getting agreements?
Kerr: Both orchestras have lost a lot of concerts so far, and the longer the lockout continues the larger the risk becomes of losing the entire season. There is also the concern about alienating orchestra fans, who the orchestras need both as ticket-buyers for concerts, but also as donors. Also, there are implications for building projects on both sides of the river. The controversial $55 million renovation and expansion of orchestra hall in Minneapolis is due to be completed by mid-summer, and it could be a problem to try to reopen a hall without an orchestra inside. Also in St Paul the arts consortium is raising money to retrofit the McKnight Theater at the Ordway to become a concert hall for the SPCO, and some folks are worried about that effort should the wrangling continue.
And of course even after there are agreements: there are still the larger challenges facing all classical music organizations, of drawing in new and younger audiences, maintaining funding, and remaining relevant in today's rapidly changing world.
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