Compromise as Minnesota Orchestra's labour dispute ends

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 January, 2014, 3:53pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 January, 2014, 3:53pm

After 15 months of an acrimonious labour dispute that cost the Minnesota Orchestra an entire season and a host of musicians, including its music director, Osmo Vanska, the orchestra will resume concerts next month.

Musicians and management announced the players had approved a new three-year contract, to take effect on February 1. With this, the longest labour dispute in American classical music has ended.

The contract reduces the musicians' pay by 15 per cent from 2012 levels, a concession for the players but better for them than the 30 per cent to 40 per cent that the management originally proposed. The orchestra will remain one of the 10 best-paid in the United States. "Keeping our salaries in the top 10 was a critical issue for us," said the cellist Marcia Peck, one of the negotiating team members.

Some positions will remain vacant. The orchestra shrank to 77 players when a number of its leading players took jobs with other ensembles. The contract stipulates that seven vacant positions will be filled in the next three years, bringing the group to pre-strike levels. According to both sides, 95 is the optimum number.

Another problem, not only in Minnesota, but around the US - is how non-concert activities are contractually mandated. Once, musicians who performed outreach activities and concerts got extra pay. As such activities become part of orchestras' mandates, contracts are being expanded to include them. The new contract includes changes to the payment and rules for outreach and chamber concerts, weekend rehearsals and overtime.

The contract represents something that was starting to seem impossible: a genuine compromise from both sides.

However, it remains a question how long it will take to work through the scars of a battle that raised the possibility that the orchestra might cease to exist in its current form, and which had seemed impossible to resolve without a wholesale change in the orchestra's leadership.

Like many American orchestras, the Minnesota Orchestra had been drawing on its endowment in order to make ends meet; it announced large deficits in 2011 and 2012. Unlike many orchestras, it had a healthy endowment, as well as US$50 million for restoring Orchestra Hall (the orchestra's home) - a necessary but ill-timed project, given that management said labour costs had to be cut by about US$5 million a year. In October 2012, after the musicians and administration failed to reach an agreement, the orchestra locked out its players.

Subsequent negotiation proved fruitless. At one point, former US senator George Mitchell stepped in. He had been able to broker peace in Northern Ireland, but the orchestra situation proved tougher.

The lockout divided Minnesota's leaders and its public. Some found the musicians' salaries exorbitant (under the new contract, the minimum base salary will fall to US$96,824 in the first year but rise to US$102,284 by the third year). Others found it outrageous that management could treat its players as expendable. The players raised more than US$600,000 during the lockout and began putting on concerts themselves.

Vanska will remain one of the greatest losses as the orchestra tries to rebuild. In his 10 years as music director, he kept the 111-year-old orchestra on the radar of the classical music world with engaging performances and a string of recordings (his CD of Sibelius's First and Fourth Symphonies has been nominated for a Grammy). He resigned in October after the inability to reach a settlement meant the cancellation of a long-planned trip to Carnegie Hall. Having seen that the management was willing to let him go rather than budge, he is unlikely to want to come back.

The Detroit Symphony Orchestra is likely to be cited as a hopeful model. After a six-month strike in the 2010-11 season, it has managed to steer a positive course. Minnesota has a higher profile and has had a far more bitter battle. The orchestra will announce details of its 2014 season soon. There is no word on whether its concerts will include the performances with Joshua Bell and Itzhak Perlman that the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra had scheduled for April and May.

The Washington Post