One Year Later, Minnesota Orchestra Pay Disparity Continues To Elicit Strong Opinions

The Best And Worst Of 2014 article from 12/31/2014 generated a great deal of reader response on the item related to the Minnesota Orchestra Pay Disparity and given that it is nearly one year since this issue transpired, it is high time to revisit the issue and see what may have transpired.

Adaptistration Guy 115For those unaware or those who may be fuzzy on the details, here are the highlights:

  • The agreement which ended the season killing lockout contained a clause that provides for substitute musicians to be compensation at a rate of 90 percent of what full time, contracted members earn. Previously, the MN orchestra had a long history of paying substitute musicians the same per-service rate as their full time colleagues.
  • When asked whether or not the musicians proposed options to maintain substitute parity, even if it meant reducing their own base salary compensation, the musician spokespersons failed to reply to multiple requests.
  • Neither the orchestra committee in place at that time nor their respective AFM Local opted to pursue a solution to mitigate the pay disparity outside the auspices of the collective bargaining agreement.

You can catch up on the details of the actual pay disparity and all of the dynamic issues via a series of articles from that time period:

I’ve reached out to the current MN Orchestra committee to see if they have any news on this topic and will post any details once they arrive. In the meantime, feel free to post a question or observation in the comments below.

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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4 thoughts on “One Year Later, Minnesota Orchestra Pay Disparity Continues To Elicit Strong Opinions

  1. There’s one point I’m still fuzzy on. Out of the orchestras that pay subs and core musicians equally per-service, many allow for individually negotiated over-scale contracts. This would create situations in which players taking time off would be temporarily replaced by musicians earning less for the same performance expectations, although the pay differential would be dependent on who was taking time off rather than a consistent 10% pay reduction. How would you characterize the difference between negotiated over-scale and Minnesota’s substitute pay clause?

  2. Your comment brings up some genuinely fascinating points, thanks for sending it in. Overscale, which is typically an individual agreements that stipulates additional wages and benefits over and above guaranteed minimums in the collective bargaining agreement (CBA), is sometimes defined in the CBA. In those cases, it is common for the CBA to stipulate that any musician, whether by act of moving up from a section or other fixed chair position or substitute, be paid that premium rate. In orchestras that do not contain those minimum overscale rates, the employer is only required to pay a substitute musician the contractually mandated base rate.

    In your example, yes the cumulative savings for the MN orchestra would depend on whether or not the absent musicians also retained individually negotiated overscale agreements. Having said all of that, I’m not entirely certain what you’re asking with regard to characterizing the differential, would you mind providing a bit more detail and/or an example? For instance, are you asking about whether substitute musicians should be paid the same rate the musician with the individual agreement or something else?

  3. As an imaginary example, I’m thinking of a scenario (for the sake of argument, it might not be plausible) with two orchestras. In one of them, the entire pay structure is specified in the CBA and no musicians negotiate over-scale agreements, but substitutes and extras are compensated at a lower rate than core players. In the other orchestra, subs and core players receive the same base pay, but every core player in the orchestra has individually negotiated some over-scale, such that in both orchestras, core players end up being compensated at a higher rate for their work than freelancers.

    Based on that example, would you expect both orchestras to experience similar benefits and drawbacks from their respective pay structures, or might one of those systems be more effective than the other? And from your experience, would the second orchestra be plausible? i.e. is it normal for most or all players who have the right to negotiate additional over-scale to actually do so, or are such arrangements usually limited to titled chair players, players of auxiliary instruments and others whose duties somehow go outside of the section musician job description?

  4. Many thanks, that helps quite a bit, per your questions:

    1) I don’t believe there will be a tidy, universal answer here as it does matter a bit on actual wages, season length and number of overall services. Having said that, in Minnesota’s case, the substitute disparity, when combined with the unusually large number of substitutes used to fill vacancies, will produce a higher than average savings compared to a peer ensemble such as Pittsburgh.

    2) No, I doubt a scenario via the second ensemble (all full time musicians maintain individual agreements) would ever exist. Although not unheard of, section string musicians have a very difficult time obtaining individual agreements. Instead, orchestras typically negotiate seniority pay increases at scheduled intervals that apply equally to all full time musicians. Substitutes do not receive this benefit. You are correct in that overscale is typically found among principal and fixed chair musicians.

    What may be useful here is to note that during labor disputes, you will typically see the employer quote musician compensation figures using “average” earnings; this figure will lump in all overscale, overtime, seniority, etc. payments into the calculation thereby skewing real compensation figures (dubious individuals will also include payments made to extra musicians, guest artists, and other musicians that have no bearing on rostered, full time musician earnings).

    I hope that helps provide some clarification but please let me know if there is anything else you are curious about.

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