Questions Surround Minnesota Pay Disparity

Ever since the Minnesota Orchestra Association (MOA) and its musicians announced they reached an agreement, one contractual item is beginning to cause a stir; specifically, the decision by the contracted musicians to accept a provision that reduces substitute musician pay at a greater rate than their own salary concessions. This becomes even more intriguing when you understand how contracted and substitute musicians function within a contemporary symphonic orchestra.

The Substitute Musician Job

The duties and responsibilities for substitute musicians are rarely defined in detail but it is safe to assume the following:

  • They are held to the same artistic standards as contracted musicians along with the host of work rules which dictate the day-to-day working environment, such as dress codes.
  • They do not receive the protections provided by tenure and can be dismissed for any artistic reason without recourse; for example, they are not protected by peer review procedures.
  • With the exception of what are colloquially known as right to work states (list), substitute musicians must be a member of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) and pay the same membership dues and work dues as contracted musicians. The only exceptions here are the handful of orchestras that have musicians who are not represented by the AFM (such as, but not expressly limited to, the Seattle Symphony, Naples Philharmonic, and Charleston Symphony).
  • Substitute musicians are not permitted to vote during the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) ratification process. Moreover, contracted musicians are not required to solicit their input or include them during any survey process. Instead, substitute musicians must trust that their contracted colleagues will always act in their best interests.

The process used to select substitutes varies wildly from one orchestra to the next and there are no boilerplate regulations dictating how this process functions. For example, an orchestra may require substitutes to participate in an audition process which the orchestra then uses to rank substitute musicians in such fashion that is used as a call order throughout the season while other groups allow section principals and/or the music director to select substitutes on an as needed basis. Some orchestras even hire local contractors to engage substitutes so you can see, there’s a wide variety of operating methods when it comes to how substitutes end up on stage.

Substitute Musicians Defined

It’s important to know that even the term “substitute” has no universal definition and each orchestra classifies substitute musicians as it sees fit; to that end, terminology and designations can vary. For example, the MOA’s 2002-2004 CBA contains two classifications for musicians who are not contracted, tenured members:

Section 2.9.c – Substitute Musician shall mean any musician employed on a temporary basis to substitute for a Staff Musician who is on sick leave, military leave, or other approved leave of absence, or to fill a vacancy for a period of one (1) year or less.

Section 2.9.d – Extra Musician shall mean any musician employed on a temporary basis to supplement the complement of Staff Musicians.

Nonetheless, that CBA applies the same payment formula to both designations:

Section 8.6 Substitute Musicians and Extra Musicians. Substitute Musicians and Extra Musicians who are engaged for less than a full week shall be paid one-tenth (1/10th) of the weekly minimum salary scale for any service of less than two (2) hours and one-eighth (1/8th) of the weekly minimum salary scale for any service of two (2) hours or more. However, if a Substitute Musician or Extra Musician is engaged for, and performs, an entire week of at least, but not to exceed, eight (8) services, the total weekly compensation shall be the weekly minimum salary then in effect, and shall not be computed according to the above scale. For purposes of this Section, weekly minimum salary scale shall not include Electronic Media Guarantee payments.

In order to provide a more comprehensive frame of reference for the above formula to make more sense, it is useful to know that the typical work week during that period of time had a cap of no more than eight services per week (emphasis added).

Section 4.2 Number of Services Per Week. There shall be no more than nine (9) services in each of twelve (12) weeks in each Season, provided that for each such week there shall also be a seven (7) service week (not counting tour weeks). There shall be no more than two (2) consecutive nine (9) service weeks, nor more than five (5) nine (9) service weeks in any eight (8) week period. Except as provided above, there shall be no more than eight (8) services in any week.

[ilink url=”” style=”download”]Download a copy of the 2002-2004 MOA CBA[/ilink]

What all of this means is patron stakeholders need to be careful to make sure they have as much information as possible when engaging in related discussions, especially if comparisons from one orchestra to another are part of the conversation.

The Problem

Adaptistration Guy 115Getting back to the MOA’s recent agreement, the issue at hand is it appears the contracted musicians approved an agreement that requires substitute musicians to take a larger pay cut than they accepted. Unverified reports indicate that substitutes will only be compensated at a rate of 90 percent what contracted members earn.

Using those unverified figures alongside some of the min/max service language from above, you can begin to create a very rough formula for determining what contracted musicians are paid per service:

[(eight service week) x (52 week season)] / $96,824 (the new agreement’s Year one minimum annual salary) = $232.75 per service for the 2013/14 season.

In the new agreement, although contracted and substitute musicians have identical artistic requirements, the substitute will now be paid $209.48 per service to sit alongside a contracted musician being paid $232.75. That’s a savings of $23.27 for each substitute musician used; granted, the figure is actually higher when you consider that substitute musicians don’t receive seniority pay or qualify for benefits such as health and disability insurance.

Moreover, now that the number of contracted musicians is down to 77 for the first year of the agreement (not to mention the added numbers of contracted musicians still away on long term substitute positions in other ensembles), the need and frequency for substitute musicians will be much higher than previous seasons.

A situation that won’t be unusual is one where no less than 20 musicians on stage will be substitutes. Using the figures above and an assumption of 20 substitute musicians, the per week savings for using 20 substitute musicians during a standard eight service week is $3,723.20.

For now, keep these numbers tucked away; we’re going to revisit them in a follow-up article once the MOA’s new agreement is released (as a related aside, my previous requests to both musicians and the MOA for a copy of the new CBA have gone unanswered).

Unanswered Questions

The precise details surrounding substitute musician pay is unknown; once the agreement is released, we’ll be able conduct a quantitative analysis and form a much clearer picture of how much of a difference exists between the new contracted and substitute musician pay gap.

Between now and then, questions begin to focus on why the contracted musicians decided to accept a proposal that required their substitute colleagues to absorb a larger pay cut than they ultimately accepted when they had such a strong history of parity. Was the discrepancy a deal-breaker for the MOA? Once the final concessions were known, was the MOA unwilling to engage in the zero sum bargaining they’ve been purporting throughout the course lockout in order to maintain parity? Did the musicians have a bottom line for base salary, even if it meant requiring substitute musicians to accept a greater cut?

These questions, and more, are attached to the issue and worth examination. I’ll be presenting these questions to both sides while continuing to request a copy of the new CBA. Hopefully, both stakeholders will be forthcoming but in the meantime, what are your initial thoughts about the contracted musician’s collective decision to require substitute musicians to absorb a larger pay cut without a reduction in duties or responsibilities while simultaneously relying on them to comprise a larger ratio of the orchestra.

A Crucial Caveat

Regardless of the details and subsequent rationale, it does appear that the new MOA agreement eliminates parity among contracted and substitute musicians. And whether or not answers to the above questions are ever provided, that doesn’t mean the discrepancy has to remain in place; ultimately, the musicians will always have several options available to rectify the pay inequality and restore parity regardless of the new CBA’s current terms or the collective decision to ratify the agreement.

We’ll examine all of those options in greater detail once one or both sides release a copy of the CBA and begin providing additional information about how this term ended up in the final agreement.

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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30 thoughts on “Questions Surround Minnesota Pay Disparity”

  1. Hello Drew,

    If I am not mistaken, the Boston Symphony and the BSO musicians reduced the pay for the Esplanade Orchestra back in the 2006 contract . They did not reduce wages for subs in “regular” BSO orchestra services. In this instance, the symphony musicians, union and the orchestra management negotiated, downward, the pay scale for an entire orchestra without them having representation for the CBA. Not sure if this was changed in subsequent negotiations.

    I also spent quite a few years being a substitute with the Atlanta Symphony and others back in the early 1990’s. At that time, subs were paid union orchestral rates rather than the scale of the core musicians in the orchestra. A subs pay was less than 50% of what was being earned by the musicians you were sitting with in a section.

    I don’t think that this is unusual. Certainly not appropriate or fair, but, not unusual. In my limited experience with a variety of orchestras, I failed to ever see a situation of parity for a musician who was bound by a CBA but not a party to its negotiation or given the same pay, rights or protections.

  2. These are all good questions. Will we ever know which points were dealbreakers for MOA? Will we learn how these points were hashed out at the table? Will each member of the bargaining unit unveil the reason he voted the way he did?

    No! Some things are better left “unverified”, as you would say. I don’t believe these answers should be “provided”. This negotiation was the most newsworthy, but that does not mean that we outside of the organization get to be flies on the wall of that bargaining room, or that secret ballot box.

    I still agree with your original observation that something is either morally correct or it is not.

    • Certainly, some issues are better left behind closed doors but this one is straightforward enough that it shouldn’t be difficult to know the broader range for why either side pushed for certain levels. To that end, terms related to fundamental elements such as compensation and benefits are also among the most straightforward to explain which is one reason why we’ll be pursing this.

  3. Drew wrote, “the need and frequency for substitute musicians will be much higher than previous seasons.” For the most part, true, but some of this need could be reduced through programming for even additional savings. It will be interesting to see if they avoid programming repertoire that requires additional musicians above the 77. Without a music director to advocate for certain programming choices, how much input will management have over repertoire?

    • There’s no question that they can reduce labor costs via programming for fewer musicians but based on the bits of info released to date regarding the commitments to masterwork series programming, it doesn’t seem as though the group is going to focus primarily on works that only require up to 80 musicians. Granted, time will tell and we’ll know more once the MOA releases a schedule for the remaining 2013/14 season.

      But you’re question about how that programming unfolds without a music director in place is going to be a key element in moving forward with the rebuilding process. The only thing we can do for now is stay tuned.

  4. Regardless of the incidence of lower rates for subs this clearly is not a precedent-setting move. To me, solid arguments can be made for a lower sub rate, based on reasons other than management’s willingness to pay, as well as for income parity.And I suspect that regardless of the contract provision, key subs will still be paid at higher rates. Bottom line, this agreement is very good for musicians who sub in the Twin Cities market. The smaller orchestra complement will create more work for subs, and MnOrch musicians will no longer be able to take work that has traditionally gone to non-Orchestra members.

    • I’d love to hear more about the equations used to reach a bottom line that being paid less than parity is good for substitute musicians. My guess is that reasoning is related to the arguments you’ve referenced, but correct me if I’m wrong. Either way, I’m curious and would like to hear more about your thoughts here. I’m especially curious to know more about your comments related to key subs; which positions/individuals are you envisioning here?

      • One of my points on the settlement is pretty crude: any number of weeks of subbing at 90% is better than 0 weeks at 100%. Regarding key subs. . .I am referencing subs for principals. . they would likely come from out-of-town and ask for full compensation. This might be a interesting question for MnOrch musicians, who have been subbing all over the country for 16 mos. .

      • Substitutes for key positions is a fascinating discussion point and yes, substitutes are permitted the same potential for negotiating individual overscale as a contracted musician in a key position (and for the sake of readers who may not be familiar with these positions, they would include spots such as concertmaster, principal oboe, etc.). Traditionally, short term substitutes aren’t able to negotiate terms as high as contracted musicians. It will be interesting to see what the orchestra does to fill those positions, will they promote existing musicians from those who remained, bring in outside musicians, or a little of Column A and a little of Column B. Time will tell.

        I don’t know if I would characterize your other perspective as crude but I certainly wouldn’t advocate that it should be a default principle. If so, then the contracted MN musicians should have settled at some point last season as opposed to holding out for the terms they finally negotiated. At the same time, I would be surprised if there weren’t observes out there who believe that would have been the better decision.

  5. Two things:

    1. If find anyone’s argument regarding the worth (or worthlessness) of a sub highly ironic on this day in particular, MLK Day. (are orchestras going to start making the subs enter through a different entrance?)

    2. I was always taught to hire the best and play with the best possible, as it only makes me and my ensembles look and sound better. I would find it tacky to pay anything less than what our regular members get paid as all are playing the same concert for the same audience.

  6. Hey Drew,

    Thanks for the article. I believe reduced compensation for subs is very common…we had it in Houston where I worked, and we have it here in St. Louis in the sense that subs have reduced benefits, and extras are paid per service rather than per week. I believe they have it in LA and many other places. A survey would be enlightening.

    Taking the moral high ground, one could argue this is unethical…everyone is doing the same work on stage and they ought to be compensated similarly. The flip side is that many players are making overscale and thus already earning more than their scale colleagues. As well, supply and demand suggests management will in fact be able to find players willing to play for a reduced rate, which is still likely to be higher than local union rates. The argument for a higher scale for permanent members hinges in part on the arduous international audition which selected them, whereas subs usually come from less competitive auditions or no audition at all. So, there are two sides to it. At negotiations, when the “pie” is divided, it is obvious that subs have little representation, and that in an either-or scenario the negotiating committee is likely to side with their permanent members’ interests.

    One minor point: in St. Louis our subs and regular replacements are in fact allowed to vote on the CBA and other contractual issues.

    • Many thanks Roger, I don’t have the most recent SLSO CBA and musician bylaws, would you mind sending me a copy via the contact page (you can upload a doc from the form)? I’m particularly fascinated and interested in seeing the terms related to substitute members voting on the CBA and how substitute and extra musicians are defined (which I’m assuming is what the voting language hinges on). To that same end, I’m curious to see what other benefits substitute musicians receive. I only know of one other ICSOM group that provides means for substitute musicians to receive benefits beyond a per service salary so if there are others out there, I’m keen to know.

      But your point brings to light one of the items touched on in the article with regard to how positions and pay rates are defined. Some calculate sub payments based on a per service avg. formula so if a sub happens to work a service set with more or less than the avg., they may get ahead or behind the curve.I have yet to encounter an orchestra that pays a sub a rate based on an individually negotiated overscale agreement. In fact, it’s uncommon for contracted members moving up to receive what the resident musician receives. As such, using base pay and any contractually mandated overscale (if it exists) and doubling rate is a fair standard to apply across the board.

      The supply/demand argument is one I’m sure could spark a long discussion here as it begs some particularly difficult questions such as if it is fair to pay substitutes at a demand based rate, why not apply the same standard to contracted musicians. That’s been a long standing negotiating point from employers but contracted musicians have pushed back with a variety of counter arguments. Nonetheless, one of the points I made in an above comment reply is the rewards for successfully completing the audition and probationary review processes is added benefits and pay bumps (such as seniority). What do you think?

  7. Drew,
    Do you happen to know how the music world compares with other professions in this issue? For example, if a substitute teacher comes into a school classroom for a day, do they usually have pay parity with the regular teacher? If a temp worker comes into an office to fill in for the regular secretary, do they typically have pay parity with the person who typically fills that spot? Back to the music world itself, if an opera principal gets sick and an understudy has to fill in for a show, do they have pay parity with the principal? And if you have thoughts on whether these are fair comparisons, I would love to hear those as well.

    • Those are good questions. The opera principal situation isn’t quite the apples to apples comparison you’re looking for here in that their work agreements are more akin to a guest artist engagement (guest conductor,violin soloist, etc.). I’m not familiar with enough other fields to know for certain but I do have some experience with the medical and tech sectors. There’s a good bit of variety there but by and large, they do maintain parity and depending on the need and project, they will exceed parity in order to secure the desired talent. At the same time, out of those sectors, the tech field isn’t unionized and nurses unions function much differently compared to musicians unions with regard to amounts of control over the bargaining environment, selecting representation, etc. That’s all a long way to say that I’d caution against making field by field comparisons.

    • “For example, if a substitute teacher comes into a school classroom for a day, do they usually have pay parity with the regular teacher?”

      No, they do not, but their qualifications and expectations are much lower than a regular teacher. In most cases, subs are not members of the union, they pay no union dues, and their salaries are determined unilaterally by the school district, not during contract negotiations. This is in direct contrast to most substitute musicians.

      In practice, a substitute teacher is considered to have successfully performed his/her job if there are no major discipline problems, and if most of the lesson plans were completed. A substitute musician would not be considered successful if he/she didn’t make any major mistakes during performance, and made it through most of the work being performed.

      The average pay for a substitute teacher in the US is $80 a day, which is about 40% of the national average starting salary for a full-time teacher in the US, as reported by the NEA for the 2011-2012 school year.

      For the record, as a former full-time teacher, I consider substitute pay to be unacceptably low, regardless of the fact that their qualifications and expectations aren’t as rigorous.

      Nevertheless, because of the differences in qualifications and expectations, we cannot make an “apples to apples” comparison between substitute teachers and substitute musicians.

      • Very interesting read – thanks! When I worked as an English teacher with a non-profit in town run by the Chinese community (all students were of Chinese descent with most being American-born of Chinese-born parents), the substitute teachers were actually paid MORE than the regular teachers by close to 10%. Much lower pay scale than what you’re describing (and certainly more so than the musicians), but we taught 15 weeks per semester. It was deemed by the administration to be more difficult job for the substitute teacher to come in NOT knowing what the previous classes had covered, etc. The regular teachers fought this and eventually the pay was evened out. My case is an exception to be sure, but it was a rather odd situation.

  8. Having been on the negotiating committee for the SPCO musicians, and subject to the same tactics by the same law firm that negotiated for the MOA, I wish the focus could turn to the tactics that were used to make us all take regressive proposals. It is important to keep in mind the context in which these contracts were created, primarily that the initial proposals were so bad that we were all forced to consider terrible cuts or not survive at all. This seems to be the new approach to achieving concessions, that is, lock out the employees to make them desperate in addition to starting out with ridiculous proposals to make us all grateful for the cuts we DID accept. All four orchestras that were locked out, Indianapolis, Atlanta, St Paul, and Minnesota, were subjected to this stance.
    I believe that the 90% of scale that they ended up with for substitutes is a big improvement from the initial offer from the MOA. In the case of the SPCO, they started out with insultingly low rates for substitutes, and we ended up with a very low rate for our subs as well. Believe me, it was not how we wanted this to end.

    • I too would be rather surprised if either the SPCO or the MOA lockouts ended the way anyone preferred and certainly, the tactics will likely be a focus for some time to come, just as they have been throughout the duration. But that doesn’t mean turning a blind eye to the substitute pay disparity is warranted either. Regardless of initial offers, the heart of the matter continues to be on the questions above: Was the discrepancy a deal-breaker for the MOA? Once the final concessions were known, was the MOA unwilling to engage in the zero sum bargaining they’ve been purporting throughout the course lockout in order to maintain parity? Did the musicians have a bottom line for base salary, even if it meant requiring substitute musicians to accept a greater cut?

      In the end, if the opportunity to reach parity was possible – even if it meant zero sum bargaining – but was opted out for bolstering improvements elsewhere, then that is something that deserves to come to light. As of now, there are only questions and very few answers.

      • I guess what I am saying is that it is a new management tactic to offer the absurd, illogical proposals we have seen over the last couple of years, including very low rates for substitutes. There are so many things to balance, size of the orchestra, pay for the substitutes needed to fill empty seats, and the base pay. 90% may be the best rate that has been negotiated from all the lockouts. Why focus so much on this one negotiation, the worst lockout in ICSOM history, when they may have been the most successful overall in keeping a high standard in all areas of their contract under the most duress?

      • We’ve been covering the self defeating nature of post downturn concessionary offers since they became public. The same is true at other outlets and I doubt that will change anytime in the foreseeable future. But to answer your very relevant question about focusing attention here and now is because this has been one of the worst lockouts in ICSOM history. Moreover, if this group of musicians deserve the characterization of being the most successful overall in keeping a high standard in all areas of their contract under the most duress then it makes it that much more imperative to examine why substitute musicians ended up shouldering a larger burden. In the end, all stakeholders have an equal commitment to transparency. If there was no other option other than disparity, let’s look at how that transpired in order to learn more about it and educate not only the field but the institution’s supporters.

  9. I am in the camp that believes substitute musicians should have parity with contracted musicians. However, I’m curious how people would answer this: can non-parity be justified in the short term by circumstances (ie: less pay but more gigs)?

    As Drew alluded to above, the Minnesota Orchestra will need to use FAR more substitutes than usual in the short term (is there any way to quantify how many more than average?). Is it any more or less justifiable that the contracted musicians compromised on substitute pay, knowing that the subs will have more frequent and more consistent playing opportunities over the course of this CBA? I could maybe buy into this argument, provided that subs will receive parity once the orchestra reaches full strength again and subbing opportunities return to their normal levels. In this sort of compromise:
    – the MOA realizes cost savings in the short term by reducing sub pay during a period when a higher than average number of subs are used,
    – the contracted musicians get back to work with a pay reduction, and
    – the substitute musicians receive a pay reduction, but with increased frequency and consistency of gigs with the orchestra.

    In general, would freelance musicians be willing to take less pay for more consistent work? I freelance a bit, but it is not my livelihood so I don’t feel qualified to answer…

    • Those are some excellent questions Garrett and to a certain degree, what you’ve described is the value assessment process musicians use within orchestras at the cusp of evolving from an ensemble that has a set per service wage but no minimum service guarantees to one that does provide minimum service guarantees. In those instances, the value of known, and presumably, increased available services is potentially worth flat pay increases or even a small reduction.

      I’m not certain that applies to the MOA situation for a few reasons; one is according to press reports, although both sides agree on an optimum musician complement, there are no contractual obligations to reach it by the end of the contract term. Moreover, there’s no information on how any of the substitute positions may be filled. Potentially, the organization may appoint musicians from outside the existing substitute pool as they see fit (something that is not an uncommon practice). So if the MOA applies this procedure, the potential for increased services diminishes.

      This is where having a copy of the CBA would go a long way in helping clarify the related discussions.

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