Contract deals remain elusive for locked out orchestras

9:08 PM, Mar 24, 2013   |    comments
MN Orchestra members in Wayzata
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WAYZATA, Minn. -- The Intermezzo from Bizet's Carmen is a beautiful thing in the hands of one of the finest orchestra's in the world.

But the tranquility of those notes, as they floated gently through a church in Wayzata Saturday, was in sharp contrast to the stormy relationship between the musicians playing them and their management.

"I think it's an incredibly sad time for our community to be music-less for so long," Tony Ross, the Minnesota Orchestra's principal cellist told KARE during a break in the music.

"I can't understand why this is happening to be honest."

Ross and his colleagues performed two free concerts at the Wayzata Community Church, part of a string of performances the musicians have given since being locked out by the orchestra's board in October after stalled contract talks.

The musicians were asked last April to accept sizable cuts in pay and new working rules, which led to a breakdown in negotiations.

"The cuts are anywhere from 34 percent to 50 percent, depending on your position, and many, many work changes. I think we've said over 200 rule changes in our master agreement," Ross explained.

"That kind of a cut just would turn us into a minor league orchestra."

Douglas Wright, the principal trombonist with the orchestra and a member of the musicians negotiating team, said the offer would make it difficult for the orchestra to attract the same caliber of musicians.

"If their proposal were to go forward, the great talent of this orchestra would leave it very quickly," Wright said, noting that several players have departed since talk of concessions began during the previous contract.

"Right now there are 3 positions available in peer orchestra that are talking to me about coming out for their positions."

But Doug Kelley, the former orchestra board member who is the vice chairman of the board's labor committee, said the offer reflects an industry-wide downturn in revenue.

"Since 2008 charitable contributions have fallen off, income from concerts has fallen off, all of those things have changed," Kelley told KARE Saturday.

He said the recession forced every organization to restructure, and the economic recovery hasn't changed that dynamic from the board's point of view.

"And I know the musicians are resisting it. But, you know what? They need to look at the numbers throughout the industry and they're going to see what we're really doing here is tough love."

Kelley said there has been a lot of back and forth over the orchestra's financial picture, an attempt by the union to establish how healthy the orchestra's endowment is.

But he said the board has yet received a counter offer, in the true sense of the word.

"We expected them to come back and make a counter proposal, and negotiate about salary and the other items. We have yet to hear from them."

St. Paul Chamber Orchestra 

Among those standing in with the orchestra in Wayzata Saturday was bassist Fred Bretschger, who knows all about labor disputes.

He belongs to the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, which has also been locked out since October when contract talks stalled.

"The musicians are eager to get back on stage. We really want to play in the Twin Cities. We really miss playing," Bretschger told KARE.

He said he enjoyed taking part in the Wayzata concerts geared toward children, one that featured staples such as Beethoven's 5th and Mozart's 41st, also known as Jupiter.

"That's one of most important things we do in the cities, is play for young people, and at least expose them to the music."

The SPCO's interim management asked musicians to accept a cut in base pay, dropping from $73,000 per year to $56,000. Rules would also change affecting how much extra pay musicians receive for taking on additional duties.

The orchestra's management agreed to come up to $60,000 after Mayor Chris Coleman stepped into the negotiations last week, which was a positive development.

It opened the possibility that musicians may return while bargaining continues, an arrangement known as "play and talk."

"He walking into an arena he's not really familiar with, but he did what he thought he could do to get us to some kind of agreement to at least play and talk," Bretschger explained.

"He really worked hard at it and we appreciate his efforts."

But he said musicians can't legally vote on the latest contract offer because of a hang-up over digital music licensing. That has always been handled by the parent union, the American Federation of Musicians.

"It's a stumbling block right now because we can't accept some of the language they're trying to move through," he said.

"If it gets to a point where there's no compensation for the music that's spread out there across the world on the Internet it hurts everybody."

Because there is progress to report on the St. Paul front, it's more likely members of the SPCO will take the stage before their counterparts in Minneapolis at the Minnesota Orchestra do.

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