More Details From The Minnesota Contract

The recently accepted contract at Minnesota has provided another concessionary end to a drawn out negotiations.  A recent article in the Star-Tribune by Michael Anthony outlines some of the contract’s results.

The article reports that the players have accepted a wage freeze in the first year and a delayed final increase until the final six months of their three year contract.  They also accepted a proposal to increase their deductible and the amount they must contribute to certain plans.

That was fairly typical concessionary language compared to most other recent orchestra contract settlements.  But what’s really interesting in Minnesota is the contract language surrounding vacant positions designed to save the organization money.

Since the Star-Tribune article was a little vague regarding the details of this part of the contract I asked Sam Bergman, MO violist, orchestra committee chair, ArtsJournal news editor, and AJ mini-blogger extraordinaire (and you thought your life was busy), to clarify some of this for me. Sam said,

” basically, some of our many open positions will be filled by fall 2005, some by fall 2006, and some by fall 2007. Until then, sub will fill the spots, and any further positions that come open must be filled immediately.”

Since there was a set language regarding which positions were being filled by specific dates, I asked Sam if the orchestra was going to make the short term sub positions something like a regular position with an audition to select a candidate. Sam said,

“No, I don’t believe the spots will be advertised as short-term positions. The idea (I believe) is to fill the spots with subs week by week, so that they don’t have to pay benefits. It’s worth noting, by the way (and the [Star-Tribune] article didn’t mention this) that the pay rate for sub players has been slashed by 20% in the first year of the contract, eventually rising back to its current level by the beginning of the third year. This was the most controversial aspect of the agreement amongst the musicians.”

That’s an interesting arrangement, I wondered if the orchestra committee plans to address the issue of whether or not subs will be long term or week by week as a sort of “ex post facto” negotiation?  Sam said,

“Generally, subs are hired week to week, and we anticipate that the majority of the open positions will be filled that way, although our orchestra committee will of course monitor the overall fairness of the process. Just a guess, but I suspect that many of our subs (particularly in the strings, where sub lists tend to be longer), would be upset if a position were filled long-term by a single individual, rather than allowing all of our top subs an equal opportunity to work. We do use long-term sub contracts occasionally – at the moment, we have both an oboist and a trombonist working on one-year substitute contracts – but it’s dealt with on a case-by-case basis. Our committee generally gets involved only if asked to by the principal of the section involved.”

I asked Sam if the MD had been involved and signed off on this as an acceptable solution.  Sam said,

” I would imagine that he would certainly be allowed a significant role in the decision-making process, if he wanted one. I don’t think anyone’s thought quite that far ahead in this situation, however.”

Since the cost of benefits seemed to be at the heart of the issue I asked Sam if there was ever an option to have a long term sub position without benefits. Sam said,

“Our agreement states that any sub working more than 36 (non-consecutive) weeks with us in a calendar year must be given full benefits. This rarely happens, except for subs with one-year contracts. There is no way around this provision, and management has never sought to get around it, although I think they do keep a fairly close watch on who might be approaching 36 weeks. But since our full working season is 42 weeks (with 10 weeks vacation,) 36 weeks would be almost a full year anyway, and therefore only a theoretical possibility, for the most part.”

I wondered if Minnesota included any retirement deals for older players in this contract that they could leave temporarily unfilled.  Sam said the open positions in the orchestra mentioned in the contract were,

” all [positions] that are already open due to retirements or moves to other orchestras. We’ve been very backed up with auditions lately. No one is being pressured to retire to create vacancies.”

I asked Sam if the contract was passed by a close vote and he said,

“As for the vote count, we never release them, it’s a long-standing policy, designed to protect the privacy of our members, and the integrity of our internal discussions. However, I can tell you that it wasn’t a close vote. Our negotiating committee worked unbelievably hard to get an agreement in a very difficult year, and we trust their judgment implicitly. That having been said, everyone in the orchestra is in agreement that, while a concessionary contract may have been necessary to allow our management and board time to get their financial house in order, we fully expect things to be different the next time around. Three years from now, if the business end of the organization is still a mess, we will not be nearly so amenable to taking another hit to compensate for the mistakes of others.”

Is anyone in the orchestra worried about the concessions becoming de facto practice?

“Concessionary contracts can be dangerous, because all too frequently, orchestra managements view them as either a “win” or a permanent change in the way the business can be run. I don’t believe that was the case here, however. Agreeing to this contract was the right thing to do, simply because many of the messes that exist in our organization are not the fault of the current upper management team, which has been on the job for only a year. It seemed only logical to allow a new group of managers an adequate period of time to reverse the years of mismanagement that preceded their arrival.
Nonetheless, it will be the responsibility of our orchestra committee, over the next three years, to remind our management, if and when necessary, that this contract is a reprieve, not a pardon.

During our European tour last winter, we were told by critics and musicians on two continents that our orchestra is truly among the elite in the U.S. and the world. Our music director and executive director have both been quoted as saying that we are among the top three U.S. orchestras at the moment in terms of artistic quality. In order to preserve (and advance) that high standard, we cannot afford to become stagnated in the second or third tier of U.S. orchestras, salary-wise. Our compensation has already fallen out of list of the top ten American ensembles, and the current contracts in Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. show that no one else in the industry plans to sit around waiting for us to catch up.

As I say, we have confidence that the management team currently in place has the best interests of the organization at heart, and we have now shown ourselves to be willing to go above and beyond the call of duty to help stabilize a potentially precarious financial situation. Hopefully, three years from now, we will be able to better match our compensation to our national and international reputation.”

My thanks to Sam for his time to answer those questions with so much detail.  It’s refreshing to be able to see more of what goes on in the minds and hearts of those involved with a contract negotiation like Minnesota recently completed.  I’m sure the Minnesota Orchestra patrons will feel better learning more about what’s going on with their orchestra too.

And Sam’s comments bring up a very important question in my mind:  how does an orchestra deal with a situation following a concessionary contract if their situation hasn’t improved and management isn’t prepared to make good on their earlier promises? Could a situation like that be enough to tear apart a world class artistic product?

But that will have to wait until tomorrow

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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