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SPCO Musicians Reject Contract Offer as Deadline Nears

Musicians rejected management’s latest contract offer in a “non-binding” vote; management has said it will be forced to cancel the remainder of the season if a deal is not reached by April 8.

SPCO Musicians Reject Contract Offer as Deadline Nears

In a non-binding vote, locked-out Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra (SPCO) musicians on Monday rejected the latest contract proposal from orchestra management—just one week before an April 8 deadline that must be met in order to resume concerts this season.

SPCO musicians have been locked out for about five months. Their labor contracts expired September 30; after three weeks of moving forward under a “play-and-talk” agreement, which allowed musicians to continue playing under the terms of their existing contract while negotiations continued, management imposed a lockout in late October.

After months of gridlock, there appeared to be movement toward a resolution late last month. St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman intervened in the negotiations, stressing the consequences to the orchestra and the city if the lockout persists and additional concerts are canceled.

The intervention spurred orchestra management to present a sweetened offer—and orchestra leaders said an agreement must be ratified by April 8 in order to avoid having the remainder of the season’s concerts canceled. Concerts are currently canceled through April 21, but if an agreement is reached by April 8, no additional concerts would need to be canceled, SPCO President Dobson West recently told Twin Cities Business.

Musicians responded that the offer included language regarding digital media use, which they said must be removed by management or resolved by the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) before SPCO orchestra musicians can legally vote on the proposal. West said Tuesday, however, that management consulted with the AFM and removed language that is outside the jurisdiction of the local union.

Musicians sent management a counteroffer on Friday, in which they agreed to the $60,000 base salary outlined in management’s proposal but altered portions that were contingent upon an AFM agreement. (Orchestra members’ base salary in the 2011-2012 performance year was $73,732, and during the most recent season, prior to the lockout, they were paid an annual rate of $78,233, according to a musician-hosted website.) Management rejected the counterproposal, which West said was “very different” from management’s offer, “both economically and artistically.”

On Monday, SPCO musicians said that they held a “non-binding, non-ratification vote” on the proposal put forth by management following discussions with the mayor. Musicians said they rejected the offer “for several reasons, including serious threats to job security and contingencies placed on guaranteed pay.” For example, some compensation terms in management’s proposal are contingent upon an agreement being reached with AFM, Lynn Erickson, a spokeswoman for SPCO musicians, told Twin Cities Business.

The musicians stressed that the vote was not a formal ratification vote; they claim that the proposal could not be submitted for a formal vote because “the entire contract is contingent upon” management reaching an agreement with the AFM.

Now, orchestra management is calling foul, saying that some orchestra members were not allowed to vote. West said Tuesday that management is “dismayed” to have learned that not all musicians were permitted to participate in Monday’s vote.

“We feel that because this is such an important issue, all musicians of the orchestra should be given the right to vote,” West said.

Erickson said, however, that 25 out of 30 musicians participated in Monday’s vote. (The orchestra has 34 positions, but there are currently only 30 full-time musicians.) To be eligible to vote, musicians were required to be present or participate by phone in order to first hear the group’s discussion of the proposal. Four musicians who were out of town or out of the country were unable to participate, as was one musician who was working a construction job, she said.

No additional talks have been scheduled, according to Erickson, who said she remains “hopeful” that a deal will be reached.

As the lockout drags on—and the April 8 deadline to approve a deal or risk cancelation of the season's remaining concerts approaches—a grassroots group dubbed Save Our SPCO recently announced the formation of an exploratory committee to examine the feasibility of establishing an entirely new orchestra organization.

Meanwhile, the state’s other premier orchestra remains in a similar dispute. The Minnesota Orchestra has been locked out for six months. The Star Tribune recently reported that no additional negotiations were scheduled, and the remainder of the orchestra’s season is expected to be canceled. The Minnesota Orchestra and its musicians did, however, agree on two separate firms that would conduct an independent financial review of the organization, according to the Minneapolis newspaper.

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