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Possible cut worries St. Paul orchestra musicians

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SPCO strings
The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra faces a projected deficit of up to $1 million this year and is looking to cut costs.
Photo by Sarah Rubenstein

Leaders of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra say they are revamping a contract proposal after players rejected one that would have reduced the number of weeks individual musicians would play. 

The proposal to cut the guaranteed number of weeks of work for most SPCO musicians to 20, and some to 15, was roundly rejected by players.

Acting SPCO President Dobson West says he's looking at new options, acknowledging that he heard what the musicians had to say. 

"We told them we will be coming forth with a couple of scenarios before the next round of negotiation meetings, that will substantially increase the amount of guaranteed compensation that they will be receiving," West said. 

West said it will take some reorganization of the budget, but it can be done.

"We believe that the proposals that we will be making will in fact save the society the same amount of money as our original proposal," he said.   

The SPCO is in a tight position. It faces a potential deficit of up to $1 million this year. It has already cut administrative costs over the past couple of years, and the musicians' contract is one place where it could make some savings.

"We are very aware of the SPCO's financial challenges," said Leslie Shank, co-chair of the SPCO Musicians negotiating committee. "In fact, over the last 10 years we have agreed to over $2 million in salary cuts and other concessions, and we want to continue to be part of the solution."  

Shank says the musicians want the SPCO to look at other ways of both saving and raising money. They have proposed a pay freeze, and an increase in ticket prices. 

Shank said the the proposal to reduce musicians' work weeks means they're feeling uncertain about their pay and their future.

"How can you plan your life? You can't," she said. "That's the sort of reason why the anxiety among the musicians is so strong, and why people are selling homes and looking for other work --  because they want to have security." 

People on both sides of the negotiations quietly worry the contract talks could get nasty. The next sessions are to take place in mid-July. 

It's unfortunate some of the details are now available to the public, said Drew McManus, an arts management consultant who blogs about business issues in the orchestral world.

"Because there's not much you are going to get out of this other than people to begin to take sides," said McManus. "And the moment you take side, that almost puts into motion a set of circumstances that turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy. So an organization has nowhere to go except into increased conflict."   

That explains the relative silence coming from Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis, where negotiators for the Minnesota Orchestra and its musicians are due to sit down for the next round of their contract negotiations on Friday. Orchestra spokeswoman Gwen Pappas said they really do want to keep things to themselves for now.

"At this point our work is very much in that room around that negotiating table with both sides participating," she said.  "We want to keep the focus in the room right now and focus on the issues at hand."  

The Minnesota Orchestra also needs to cure financial ills. It ended its last fiscal year with a $2.9 million deficit, and orchestra management indicated that some of that will have to be fixed with this contract negotiation.

It's just coincidence that the two orchestras are negotiating at the same time. They are quite separate, but orchestral consultant Drew McManus said simple proximity could  have an impact on the the outcome of both.

"If they are both heading towards similar directions, that could potentially accelerate whatever process that's going to be," said McManus. "Whereas if one group is doing really well and one group is having problems, it becomes very difficult for either side to say, 'Look, it's not just us.'"

The SPCO contract runs out at the end of June,  and the Minnesota Orchestra contract is up in September.