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Minnesota 2020 Journal: Sour Notes

August 31, 2012 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

It’s hard to cast a bassoonist as a villain. In fact, it’s difficult to suggest that any orchestral musician is a bad guy. Musicians can certainly be typecast. The trusty sidekick? Sure. As sober townfolk? Yes. Even as the plucky, comic relief. But, the villain? That’s a stretch yet, listening to the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra Society’s leaders, that’s exactly the impression that they seem to be trying to convey.

Weird. Yet, if you stop to think about it, not so weird at all. The SPCO leaders, negotiating a contract with their musicians, want Minnesota to view SPCO players as insenstive louts determined to destroy the SPCO’s majesty. After years of wage and benefit concessions, SPCO musicians are being asked for even more concessions, including surrendering tenure, seniority incentive pay, and musician-determined participation in the SPCO Society’s organizational leadership.

If this sounds like thinly disguised union busting, substitute American Crystal Sugar for the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in order to understand the situation more clearly. Or, swap “K12 teacher” for “musician” and the conflict takes on even greater context.

My neighbor, Carole Smith, is an SPCO bassoonist. She’s also a labor leader, negotiating with the SPCO Society’s leaders on musicians’ behalf. I didn’t know this until I spotted a news advisory announcing that SPCO musicians would play a short State Fair show at the AFL-CIO’s labor pavilion.

I know Carole as a neighbor and a fellow church congregant. She’s bright, thoughtful and isn’t given to loud, public outbursts. Mostly, I think of her as our church’s treasurer even when she’s not actually serving in that role because she assumes it frequently. I know, at one level, that she’s a professional musician but, in my mind, that’s not how I know her best. Learning that she’s a musicians’ labor leader just adds to my estimation of her.

We don’t think of musicians as workers much less as organized workers, collectively bargaining with their employing musical organizations. From an audience perspective, gazing at formal-wear clad musicians playing together on stage, we don’t see workers in their workplace. We understand musicians as artists but not as workers.

The young musician’s road to a paid symphony gig is hard and long. Years of practice, schooling and work are required before anything resembling a paycheck comes along. Instruments are stunningly expensive and the hours aren’t pretty. It’s not a life for the faint of heart.

The SPCO’musicians are among the very best chamber orchestra players. They’re proportionately out of step with the Twin Cities marketplace, meaning that we have access to much higher, better, and more accomplished talent than a state of Minnesota’s size should probably merit. The SPCO is a gem, fully polished, and not a diamond in the rough.

Musicians are artists but musicians are also skilled craftsmen. They own the tools of their trade. Playing an instrument is a physically demanding job. But, as with carpenters, plumbers or mechanics, working with the tools is part of the job’s reward. Music is an act of artistry and craft. The one is inseparable from the other.

According to an SPCO fact sheet, musician costs account for 40% of the budget. This isn’t my area but that seems surprisingly low. In an arts organization committed to producing top-flight music, enriching Minnesota, spending 60% of the budget on administrative, rent, marketing and other costs strikes me as odd. Consequently, the SPCO’s demand that its musicians surrender even more salary and benefits rings oddly hollow.

This work contract dispute, considered in light of the lockout at American Crystal Sugar or in the comparative context of K12 public teacher bashing, suggests that other, darker forces are at work. The dive to the bottom, whether it involves wages, ethics or standards, diminishes Minnesota’s community strengths. We are strong because earlier Minnesotans invested in schools, roads and healthcare. They created institutions, built businesses and produced a legacy. As a result, Minnesota prospered.

We are no longer prospering; at best, we’re treading water. Conservative public policy is strangling growth. Attacks on workers, whether they’re sugar beet processors or musicians, only accelerates Minnesota’s decline. When we focus on what really matters, Minnesota moves forward. It’s time for a new policy direction. Mediocrity yields no rewards.

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  • Bernice Vetsch says:

    September 5, 2012 at 10:16 am

    I see nothing on line that names the members of the SPCO Society—the folks who negotiate with those who represent the musician’s union on behalf of—WHOM?