Twin Cities orchestras make public appeal amid contract negotiations

SPCO Concertmaster Stephen Copes
From left, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra Concertmaster Stephen Copes, and violinists Elsa Nillson and Ruggero Allifranchini. With time running out for contract negotiations at the Minnesota Orchestra and the SPCO, all sides are trying to make their cases to the public.
Photo courtesy Sarah Rubenstein

Later today, negotiators for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and its musicians will meet to discuss management's latest contract offer. Musicians and management of the Minnesota Orchestra meet for contract talks Monday.

With both organizations facing large deficits, their managements are seeking major wage concessions. The musicians say that will gut the orchestras. With current contracts expiring at the end of the month, all sides are looking for public support. Getting the word out is a challenge.

There are unique factors to the orchestras' contract negotiations, not the least of which is the highly unusual situation of two world class ensembles in the same metro area trying to work out deals at the exact same time.

However, at the roots these are just ordinary labor talks, said Macalester College labor historian Peter Rachleff.

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

"I think it's also a particularly contemporary labor story," he said.

It's now commonplace for people providing a service to the public, whether it be Minnesota nurses, Chicago teachers or Twin Cities musicians to look for ways to engage the public during contract talks, Rachleff said.

"They need to bring them in as a leverage point to move the management of hospitals, of school systems, and of symphonies and orchestras," Rachleff said.

Minnesota Orchestra
The Minnesota Orchestra, in an undated file photo. The orchestra musicians have hired a public relations firm to broaden their public appeal.
Photo by Greg Helgeson, courtesy Minnesota Orchestra

But word of the orchestral contract battles had not seemed to have reached the people in Rice Park in St. Paul, even in the shadow of the SPCO's home at the Ordway Center.

"This is the first I've heard of it, and I've gone to the orchestra," said passerby Mike White. "My wife and I have been there usually about two and three times a year for the last few years. But I didn't know there was an issue,"

A bevy of brightly clad teenagers also said they hadn't heard anything.

"No. We go to a performing arts school, so we like that kind of stuff, but..." one said.

This reaction is unsurprising to public relations specialist Jon Austin, who is a veteran of many labor disputes including as company spokesman during the pilots' strike at Northwest Airlines. The real focus of an orchestral public relations war will be on regular patrons, he said.

"The number of people whose hearts and minds they are competing for, frankly, is pretty small," he said. "Probably could fill the Minnesota Orchestra Main Hall and maybe overflow into the lobby a little bit. But it's a pretty small number."

As committed supporters of the orchestras — quite often financially — patrons are an important factor in the negotiations for players and management. SPCO interim-President Dobson West certainly thinks so. He took the unusual step of posting on the SPCO's website detailed updates of the negotiations from the beginning of this year. It was a simple decision based on the collaborative way the SPCO works, he said.

"Transparency is absolutely critical to how we operate," West said.

"The number of people whose hearts and minds they are competing for, frankly, is pretty small."

West wants to keep everyone informed, from board members and ticketholders to interested members of the public.

"Frankly, trying to keep something not public in today's world is very difficult," West said.

However, the players were surprised to see details of what they thought were internal negotiations appearing on the web, SPCO Musicians Negotiating Committee Chair Carole Mason Smith said.

"We weren't asked to put our perspective on the website," Smith said. "And that's why we put up our own website."

To help the musicians navigate the unknown waters of press releases, interviews and public events they hired a public relations firm. Now they have an active Facebook page and have been collecting letters of support.

"Not just letters to the website, but letters to both newspapers," Smith said. "There's something every day, sometimes a couple of things every day."

SPCO musicians also played a free concert at the State Fair, and have another planned in coming weeks at Macalester.

Across the river at the Minnesota Orchestra things are quite different. During five months of negotiation, neither side said anything beyond that they were meeting. Orchestra management did post details of a contract offer on its website, but quickly took them down saying it was a mistake.

Carole Mason Smith
Carole Mason Smith, who has played with the SPCO for over 30 years, is chair of the SPCO Musicians Negotiating Committee for the ongoing contract talks with the orchestra. Of the public response to the SPCO's effort at online engagement, Smith said. "There's something every day, sometimes a couple of things every day."
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

The Minnesota Orchestra musicians also hired a public relations firm, but the scenario changed Sept. 5 when the orchestra management not only published a summary of its contract, but the entire legal document. The website detailed a proposal to reduce the average musician's annual pay from $135,000 to $89,000.

Austin said making high salaries public is a technique to place pressure on negotiations.

"They'll say, 'geeze, you guys! Aren't you making enough already.' You know, 'how dare you ask for more,'" Austin said. "Or in the case of what's going on with the orchestras, "guys, times are tough all over. You should probably be grateful for the cuts they are offering.'"

Representatives of the Minnesota Orchestra musicians declined to speak for this story. But when the figures were released, musicians negotiator Doug Wright said publishing the salaries was an attempt to drive a wedge between the public and the musicians.

"Our marketplace is international, the musicians' marketplace is international," Wright said. "You can't base our salary or our working conditions against the average 9-to-5 person."

Musicians at both the Minnesota Orchestra and the SPCO have argued lower salaries will inevitably lead to top players leaving, and threaten both orchestras' foundations of artistic excellence. The musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra also played a free concert last week.

Minnesota Orchestra President Michael Henson said management is incredibly respectful of the musicians and their talent. But he too says transparency is now what is needed, particularly as the contract deadline is now less than two weeks away.

"Five and-a-half months into this process we have yet to receive a counterproposal. On day one we put our proposal on the table," he said. "And I think we are slightly disappointed that we've not actually had more dialogue as to the substance of how we find the resolution."

The SPCO is now a couple of weeks into its season, and attendance is up by more than 10 percent over last year. Negotiations scheduled for today and Saturday have to be curtailed slightly to allow musicians time to perform. Musicians and management from the Minnesota Orchestra are scheduled to meet Monday. Their season doesn't start until Oct. 18, providing of course, there is a season.