Examining the Minnesota Orchestra Redline Agreement Part 4

This installment of our ongoing examination of the Minnesota Orchestra Redline Agreement (MORA) will focus on the proposed elimination of seniority pay for all musician employees. To put it mildly, this is a profound proposal and, if implemented, it would be unprecedented in the field for an ensemble the size and stature of the Minnesota Orchestra.

Introduction Material

If you’re new to this series, please take a moment to expand this content which explains what a redline contract is, the ground rules for this examination, define related acronyms, and the overall goal of the series. You’ll also have an opportunity to download a complete copy of MORA.

However, if you’ve been following along since the onset, feel free to skip ahead.


The Goal

What I hope to accomplish with this series is to provide a broader and more thorough understanding of the dynamic issues that go into a labor dispute. In the end, it’s much more than just compensation, benefits, musician compliment, and season length.

We’ll try to understand why clauses exist in the first place and what each side perceives as beneficial or injurious by modifying, eliminating, or leaving it untouched. Likewise, we’ll step outside of the world of sound bites, spin, and emotionally charged rhetoric by embracing a practical, evenhanded examination of the specific contractual language at core of this dispute.

[ilink url=”https://adaptistration.com/wp-content/uploads/MO-Redline-Agreement.pdf” style=”download”]Download a complete copy of the Minnesota Orchestra Redline Agreement[/ilink]

Ground Rules

  1. Avoid universal application. Perhaps one of the most important bear traps to avoid throughout this process is to assume that these issues are universally applicable to all orchestras; simply put, they aren’t. Just because the Minnesota Orchestra does something, doesn’t mean the same should hold true somewhere such Omaha and vice versa.
  2. Understand the acronyms.
    1. MOA = Minnesota Orchestra Association (the board and/or executive management)
    2. MMO = Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra
    3. MORA = Minnesota Orchestra Redline Agreement (the version submitted to musicians as their last official offer and subsequently voted down on 9/29/12)
    4. CBA = Collective Bargaining Agreement (also known as “the contract,” “master agreement,” or simply “agreement”).
  3. First hand clarification. When possible, additional insight, justification, and rationale behind why changes have been presented and/or why changes are opposed will be provided by official MOA and MMO spokespersons. If such information is provided after an article is published, it will be included as an article update.
  4. Irreproachable comments. Comments are always welcome but readers are encouraged resist the temptation to submit a comment when upset. If you aren’t already familiar with Adaptistration’s comment policy, please take a moment to review (via the “Blog Policy” tab).
  5. Interconnectivity. Although we will be examining groups of related terms in each installment, it is important to remember that very few of these issues exist in an institutional vacuum; meaning, just because correlations aren’t made between one or more contractual items doesn’t mean they don’t exist. It is recommended that following each installment, readers think back to previous posts and attempt to identify any potential connections.

What Is a Redline Contract?

Simply put, a redline contract (sometimes called markup or strikeout) is a version of proposed modifications that show:

  • The original language.
  • Modifications in the form of strikeout and bold formatting; the former being a removal with the later an addition or modification.

Depending on where the revision process is, redline contracts come in varying degrees of detail but it is normal for final versions to include every possible change, right down to modified section and subsection numbering. The MOA redline agreement used for these purposes is an example of the latter.

Ignoring The Inconsequential Stuff

In order to establish clear parameters, let me be clear that we will be skipping over housekeeping markups, such as changes to article numbers, dates, and all of the bits and pieces that need to change.

MORA 1 - dates
We’re not going to sweat the little things.

Article VIII, Section 8.2 Seniority Pay

Seniority Pay
Article VIII, Section 8.2 Seniority Pay

Quantitative Summary

This language exists in order to define the terms of additional minimum base compensation provided to musician employees based on years of service. In orchestras that employ musicians on a salary structure, the amounts are typically defined by means of a per-week configuration and have minimum and maximum limits.

Seniority pay functions like base pay in that it is implemented equally among all musicians regardless of which position they fill and whether or not they have individual overscale agreements. Likewise, it is mutually exclusive to issues related to traditional workplace benefits most people are familiar with such performance or merit based incentives.

However, it is important to note that there is no universally adopted (or even prescribed) formula for defining seniority pay scales and each orchestra crafts its respective levels based on a host of individual variables. Given the lack of a universal system, a musician employee cannot transfer seniority from one orchestra to another.

In this instance, the MOA is seeking to completely eliminate seniority pay; meaning there are no proposed alternatives and if implemented, would denote that any musician currently earning seniority pay would immediately lose those wages and fall back to the established base compensation level.

Management Perspective

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the obvious advantage to completely eliminating seniority pay is financial. In orchestras such as the Minnesota Orchestra, largely considered a destination ensemble by many in the field, musicians tend to have longer tenures and when compared to ensembles with substantially smaller budgets, a larger ratio of musicians qualify for higher levels of seniority pay.

Musician Perspective

Given that the majority of musician employees do not benefit from monetary improvements related to individual overscale agreements, seniority pay is the only contractually mandated economic item that acknowledges the value of experience and the benefits of loyalty.


Section string musicians stand to lose the most if seniority pay is eliminated.

Of all the proposed MORA changes, this is perhaps the most perplexing. Offering employees some form of seniority pay or a combination of seniority and performance based incentives are quite common throughout a wide range of for profit fields. As a result, most outside observers have an easier time understanding the value of offering these sorts of benefits.

Also worth noting is the unique employment structure of orchestra musicians in that there is next to no hope for the typical sort of intra-corporate career advancement that provide increases in pay and benefits. Traditionally, this lack of career advancement is apt to produce negative consequences in increased apathy, decreased ownership, and general artistic malaise; in short, it fosters a small cog in a large wheel syndrome.

A common byproduct of this is The Money Drug pattern whereby musician employees act out to subsidize frustration by demanding higher base payments. Consequently, when you remove something such as seniority pay, you can expect musician employees to vent frustration in other ways, all of which will certainly cause the employer to endure higher operating costs and lower productivity.

Seniority pay has been the typical solution to these problems by acknowledging not only the contributions a musician provides over the years but it also recognizes the benefits derived from experience. Ideally, the infusion of experience into an existing skill set acts as a sort of artistic force multiplier by allowing the ensemble to accomplish more in less time.

Think of it as one of the primary ways orchestra push back against Baumol’s cost disease. So even though it takes the same number of musicians to perform a piece of standard repertoire from one year to the next, the benefits produced by experience allow the organization to allocate less rehearsal time toward some works while producing similar or greater artistic levels thereby providing additional time to spend on other, more challenging works (especially new music).

Additional Insight

This is very different from other MORA items we’ve examined in that there are is no alternative language proposed, all of which projects a lack of interest on the MOA side of the bargaining table in exploring alternatives. Given this unusual approach, I contacted the MOA to inquire about additional rationale behind why they proposed to eliminate seniority pay instead of simply offering an amendment and they provided the following statement.

The rationale in eliminating seniority pay was to share the available resources as evenly and widely as possible across the Orchestra. The idea was to make base compensation—working within limited resources— as substantial as possible for everyone in the Orchestra. Section leaders and one-on-a-part players would still receive additional compensation through overscale for the additional responsibilities of their job.

This is the type of issue that would typically be addressed in negotiations via a musicians’ counterproposal. The Board Negotiating Committee has expressed to our players that we need to get their input on issues like this one to make certain the final contract can reflect musician priorities as well.

That certainly provides additional insight; however, it raises as many questions as it answers. On the most basic level, both parties can discuss any contractual provision without the need for formal proposals and counterproposals. Those discussions often produce positive results and likely results in either side modifying existing proposals.

It’s worth pointing out that although the MOA response indicates that they intend to offer overscale for some positions, we discovered in Part 2 from this series that the MORA proposal also includes eliminating all existing individual overscale contracts.

Moreover, only a small ratio of musician employees would even qualify for the potential to negotiate additional terms. Combined with the fact that the MORA proposal does not contain language for minimum overscale levels and that the employer is under no obligation to offer any compensation nor must it implement overscale equally, the benefits of the proposed solution are, at best, problematic.

In Closing

Proposing to eliminate seniority pay falls short of acknowledging the value of experience and regardless of egalitarian motives, invites a host of negative consequences. In addition to section musicians lashing out, the orchestra can expect higher turnover rates throughout all positions, thereby degrading any sort of unique artistic voice. Traditionally, the diminution of artistic quality produces an equal decline in ticket buyer and donor interest, which in turn could initiate an unavoidable spiral of decline resulting in exacerbated financial crisis.

In short, the cure stands a high degree of probability for killing the patient.

At the same time, if the MOA leadership expects the current labor dispute and resulting contractual terms to produce a work environment so toxic as to initiate a self perpetuating cycle of discontent, they may decide that it is best to hasten the departure of as many musician employees as possible and to keep the subsequent average musician tenure as low as possible.

Consequently, breaking the level of discontent may be a palpable alternative if the executive leadership believes it can forestall a death spiral, regardless if such actions produce lower artistic excellence and despite the current music director’s point of view.

Ultimately, this initial peek inside the much larger proposal will prove a useful resource for helping develop a practical outlook on the dispute.

What are your thoughts? Do you see value in proposing to eliminate seniority pay; if so, why?

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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3 thoughts on “Examining the Minnesota Orchestra Redline Agreement Part 4”

  1. Seniority pay is important for the reasons you’ve enumerated, Drew. We musicians don’t often advance within our own orchestra, but our contributions grow with the experience of playing within the ensemble. Greater turnover would mean the loss of the sense of how things are done musically in the M.O. A sound that has been cultivated carefully over decades can easily be damaged or destroyed by personnel losses, whether titled chairs or rank and file. I hope that the M.O.A. will look outside its plan to cut their way to prosperity.

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