SPCO proposes new contract for musicians

SPCO strings
Violist Sabina Thatcher and violinists Dale Barltrop and Daria T. Adams of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.
Photo by Sarah Rubenstein

Management at the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra today released a proposed contract which would cut musicians' guaranteed salaries by 15 percent, and reduce the size of the orchestra from 34 to 28 players. The orchestra says it needs to control costs to become financially sustainable.

The new proposal is the result of the musicians response to a previous offer which reduced the number of guaranteed days of work, SPCO interim-President Dobson West said. Musicians said that would result in some players losing more than half their paychecks.

West said he hopes musicians will find this offer more palatable.

"Under the new proposal, the current musicians are all guaranteed $62,500 a year, regardless the number of weeks that they play," West said. "But if they actually perform in more than 32 weeks they will get additional compensation."

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Musicians would also be able to individually negotiate what is known as overscale, payment for additional duties and artistic accomplishment.

However the SPCO faces a deficit of $1 million this year and further similar deficits in the future. West says going forward, a long-term sustainable model must be found. One solution he offers is to cut the number of SPCO musicians from 34 to 28.

"From a financial perspective we do need to reduce the cost of the musician contract and by reducing the compliment of musicians we would be able to accomplish part of that goal," West said.

The proposal seeks to achieve the reduction in numbers through attrition. The plan also includes a retirement package offer for players age 55 years and older, which offers two-thirds salary providing players sign on before the end of 2012. However it also includes a provision for layoffs if needed.

West points out that the SPCO has been smaller in its history. He said he also hopes once the contract is settled there can be what he calls a robust and ongoing discussion about the best size and instrumentation for the SPCO to achieve its mission.

The proposal arrives just days before the next bargaining session with musicians, scheduled for Monday and Tuesday.

A representative of the musicians negotiating committee said she cannot comment on the management offer until the musicians and their lawyer have reviewed the document. However musicians say cutting salaries will inevitably lead to players quitting the SPCO for better paying jobs elsewhere, a migration which the players say will hurt performance quality.

Another important element in the contract offer is that new musicians would only be guaranteed a salary of $50,000 annually.

The SPCO release comes at the end of a week where the heat is clearly increasing under negotiations both in St Paul, and across the river at the Minnesota Orchestra. The current contracts for both orchestras run out Sept. 30. Earlier this week Minnesota Orchestra management released its contract offer to the public, much to the annoyance of its musicians. That proposal would cut an average salary of a Minnesota Orchestra musician by $45,000 a year.

The musicians struck back with a call for an independent audit of the orchestra's finances, including its endowments. Musicians negotiating committee member Doug Wright accuses the orchestra management of presenting different numbers to different people.

"Because what they have put forward states one picture, but yet we have seen other pictures stated elsewhere, we just want to see what the real numbers are," Wright said.

Minnesota Orchestra management responded with a statement saying "Every year the Minnesota Orchestra performs a thorough, independent audit process by one of the nation's top accounting firms. We have shared all of our recent audited results with the Union and answered these questions many times in our negotiation sessions over the last five months."

The next negotiating session between the Minnesota Orchestra and its musicians isn't scheduled until Sept.24, a week before the current contract deadline.