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Minnesota Orchestra locks out musicians, cancels concerts

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Minnesota Orchestra management locked out its musicians at midnight Sunday, and has canceled concerts through November, after the two sides failed to reach a contract agreement.

• Link: Orchestra's canceled performances 

Meanwhile, at the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, management and musicians, facing their own midnight deadline, decided to keep playing under the old contract while talks continue. SPCO management warns it can only afford to do that for so long.

The Minnesota Orchestra lockout decision came as no huge surprise. Management put forward its first contract proposal almost six months ago. It's a tough document, containing cuts which would slash the average pay of a Minnesota Orchestra musician from $135,000 a year to $89,000. 

Management says large savings are necessary because the orchestra faces a deficit of almost $3 million this year, and more in coming years. However, musicians said they couldn't respond to the offer because they didn't have enough information about the orchestra's finances to make an informed decision, despite receiving over 1,200 pages of documents from management. 

The musicians voted Saturday evening shortly after the orchestra management told them there would be a lockout unless there was a contract agreement by Sunday at midnight. The vote result announced by musicians' negotiator Doug Wright was no surprise either. 

"We are absolutely unified in rejecting this," he said. "There was no discussion on, 'Well maybe we could take this, or maybe we could take that.' Absolutely none."

Musicians could each face a loss of 30 to 50 percent of their salaries under the proposal, raising the possibility that some might leave for better paying jobs elsewhere, threatening the orchestra's reputation as one of the best in the world. 

Following the vote, management issued a statement saying the rejection was disappointing, but it hoped the musicians would bring a serious counter proposal to a meeting scheduled for Sunday afternoon.

Management left the meeting Sunday without talking to the press. When musicians emerged shortly after, and musicians' negotiator Tim Zavadil spoke, it was clear things had not gone well.

"Today the musicians made two offers. The first offer was to go to binding arbitration. That offer was rejected by the board of management."

A second offer to play and talk - to continue working and performing under the conditions of the last contract while continuing to negotiate -- was also rejected. 

A management statement made clear why that wasn't going to happen.

"We respectfully decline the musicians' request to continue playing after the expiration of the contract and are puzzled as to why the musicians now want to turn such an important decision over to a single arbitrator. We have tremendous respect for our musicians, and hope that they come to the table with a reasonable counter offer and begin to negotiate with us," the statement said.

Musicians listened as the statement was read aloud. When asked if there was any reaction the musicians moved away, shaking their heads and looking grim. 

"No, I've said what we need to say," said Zavadil.

Minnesota Orchestra President Michael Henson said the decisions to lock out musicians and cancel concerts were not taken lightly, but were necessary given the organization's long-term financial situation. 

    "We feel we need a period of time to actually negotiate appropriately and to hear some counter proposals from the musicians in terms of how we can actually find a resolution to this problem that we have," Henson said.

With a lockout, musicians will not be paid. The Minnesota Orchestra joins the Indianapolis Symphony in locking out its players. Last week musicians at the Atlanta Symphony agreed to a contract after a three week lockout.

Meanwhile, management and musicians at the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra agreed to play and talk. Interim President Dobson West has proposed a fifteen percent cut in players salaries, a reduction in the size of the orchestra and a buyout of musicians 55 and older. Emerging from the meeting he said the two sides have been going through details of the proposal. More talks are scheduled for Oct. 11-12. He said, however, playing and talking can only go on so long.

"We can only afford a certain amount of time and we will have to assess that internally over the next few days to see how we are going to proceed with respect to our options," he said.  The chair of the SPCO musicians negotiating committee Carole Mason Smith said she will meet with the other musicians in coming days to decide what to do next. She'd heard the news about the Minnesota Orchestra lockout.

"I think it is unfortunate," she said, "And I'm just glad that right now we are able to play and talk." 

The SPCO musicians will play a free concert Tuesday at Macalester College. The Minnesota Orchestra season opener is not until Oct. 18, but it is anybody's guess as to whether that concert will go ahead.