The contract dispute between management and musicians of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra took an unprecedented twist today after St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman attempted to save the rest of the orchestra's season.
Coleman's intervention has precipitated a new offer from management, which still cuts musicians pay, but not by as much as previous proposals. Late Friday afternoon the musicians said they don't think the offer is legal.
Interim SPCO President Dobson West said Coleman approached both sides in the dispute last week.
"For the good of the SPCO and the good of St. Paul, he decided he should get involved in the negotiations," West said.
The mayor delivered a blunt message: Facing the possibility of losing the rest of the SPCO's season, it was time get the orchestra back to playing in the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts. Joe Campbell, the mayor's communications director, agreed it is unusual for an elected official to get so directly involved in an ongoing labor dispute.
"For the most part that is the case, but the Ordway is a facility in our city that is the home to the world's best chamber orchestra," Campbell said. "We are at a critical point right now where we need to do everything we can to reach an end to this lockout, and the mayor though it was important to get both sides together."
Over the last few months, concern has come from within the mayor's office about the negative impact the lockout might have on a capital campaign under way to remodel the Ordway's McKnight Theater into a performance hall specifically for the SPCO.
The mayoral pressure resulted in a new contract proposal from management. It's a "play and talk" proposal, in which management will resume concerts as the final details of a contract are worked out.
Perhaps most significant in the new offer, West said, is that management no longer insists that it save $1.5 million annually by shortening costs of the last musicians contract.
"We are convinced that taking this additional financial risk is worth it," West said. "Because we hope that we will then be able to avoid the dire consequences of canceling the rest of the season."
The proposal offers musicians a base annual salary of $60,000. This is an increase over the last offer but still cut about $15,000 a year from the musicians contract that expired last fall. It offers a retirement buyout for musicians age 55 or older and also guarantees that no current musician will be laid off as a result of the plan to reduce the orchestra from 34 to 28 players. The proposal includes guarantees of artistic control and insurance benefits for musicians. The management proposal also includes an agreement to sign an integrated media agreement with the national union, the American Federation of Musicians. That concerns online use of the SPCO's performances. Finally, it offers a $3,000 signing bonus for each musician.
West said that he was quietly confident about the proposal and that the season can be restarted.
"That would mean that we would have the concerts that would take place starting the week of April 21s," West said.
Musician negotiator Carole Mason Smith agrees with West -- to a point.
"I think it's certainly possible, but he's locked us out," Mason Smith said.
However, there is a larger problem, Mason Smith said, and that is the integrated media agreement with the national union. She said this cannot be part of the local agreement. In fact, the musicians believe such a proposal is not legal.
"This is something we have pointed out several times over the last year and we were hoping it will be removed," Mason Smith said.
She said the integrated media agreement needs to be between management and the American Federation of Musicians. Mason Smith believes this can be done quickly, after which she can present the proposal to the SPCO musicians. She declined to talk about the specifics of the offer.
"I think we have to take the entire package, all the information back to the musicians," Mason Smith said. "We will obviously have a very robust discussion about all of that."
That could happen as early as next week, if things fall into place, she said.
Meanwhile, three more Minnesota Orchestra musicians are taking jobs elsewhere because of their ongoing dispute. Violinist Gina DiBello is leaving for the Boston Symphony; violist Kenneth Freed is moving to Seattle; and Matthew Young recently won tenure as violist with the San Francisco Symphony.
Musician negotiator Tim Zavadil blames Minnesota Orchestra management for the departures.
"While on the one hand we are very disappointed that our colleagues are leaving, we certainly understand it," Zavadil said. "Again it's just a residual effect of management's lockout."
The locked-out musicians will perform two free concerts at 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. Saturday at the Wayzata Community Church.