Earlier this week, I posted a blog entry that took apart some of the local media coverage of the end of the Minnesota Orchestra labor dispute. I assumed that would be the final word on the subject, as there are plenty of other things to blog about—and the real work of getting the Orchestra up and running again is just beginning.
I was wrong.
Today’s edition of the Star Tribune has an extensive article about how the labor dispute came to a close, written by Graydon Royce. And while I hate to always come off as an embittered yahoo who finds fault with everything, I feel like I have to comment on it.
One of the big problems I have with it is simply that the Star Tribune is arguably the state’s most important news organization, with extensive contacts, resources and personnel. And of course, the Publisher and CEO of the paper sits on the board of the Orchestra. Given all this, I expected something far more extensive, deep and probing, that included well-documented quotes and insider info.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case here.
For me, what makes this article so troubling is that it seems to actively be engaging in revisionist history. Yes, the article does include new facts that haven’t (to my knowledge) been published before. And it’s not that the facts or quotes are exactly wrong. But unfortunately, many parts of the story have been slightly shaded in ways that don’t truly reflect what happened. Key elements and uncomfortable truths are at times discreetly downplayed. The actions and motivations of people are presented in slightly altered ways. These are small details, but in the end these small details do change the story.
And they do so in a way that systematically improves how the Minnesota Orchestral Association (MOA) management comes off, relative to the musicians.
Let me explain.
“In the final analysis, though, a quiet, off-the-record entreaty, a dozen low-key meetings and fatigue on both sides ended the longest work stoppage in U.S. orchestra history. Interviews with insiders reveal that a change in personalities, a sense of confidence among musicians that they had found partners they could trust on the other side, and flexibility in the board’s approach produced a contract that will put musicians back on stage at Orchestra Hall starting Feb. 7.”
Well, yes. This isn’t exactly untrue, but it obscures several larger factors at work and dramatically mischaracterizes the agency of who made what happen and why. As written, it’s a passive, “they-all-learned-to-play-together” type of response. But in reality, it’s been reported elsewhere in the press that a prime motivation for the deal was that the MOA leadership realized they were in grave and immediate danger of the city of Minneapolis revoking their lease unless something gave way by the end of last week. And there were significant rumblings that the state legislature was moving toward some decisive action. To leave off these important facts—to not even acknowledge that they may have been factors—is to mischaracterize the causes for the settlement.
And causes me to lose confidence in this report, here in the second paragraph.
“ ‘The contract is not the end, it’s the beginning,’ said Lee Henderson, a Minneapolis attorney who argued for ways out of the impasse.”
This is interesting. To clarify, Lee sent a multi-page letter that systematically shredded the MOA’s legal justification for its actions, and lobbied heavily for the city of Minneapolis to take over ownership of Orchestra Hall as a result. He also found, to his regret, that the MOA’s leadership was not a reliable negotiation partner and advocated that the public should take action to remove them from power. All this would seem to go beyond “arguing for a way out of the impasse.” Through a bout of linguistic jujitsu, you’ve turned one of the MOA’s staunchest critics into a simple advocate of change.
But to the quote itself. Again, this quote is not untrue, and hardly controversial. But that’s part of the problem. In his op-ed pieces in the Star Tribune over the course of the dispute, Lee was wonderfully eloquent in laying out new ideas for funding the Orchestra and changing its governance. His letter to the city of Minneapolis, detailing the many reasons why the MOA was out of compliance with its lease to the city, was passionate, wide-ranging, and most importantly, articulate.
So… this is the quote you use? A platitude? Instead of calling on Lee’s profound insights and finely-crafted rhetoric, you make it sound like Lee is reading a fortune cookie.
But there’s another issue here. For all the ideas he brought forward, Lee isn’t one of the principal players in the dispute. You’ve given this quote prime real estate—it’s positioned as the key quote that sets the stage for the rest of the article. Maybe I’m nitpicking, but shouldn’t such a quote be given over to one of the primary actors in the dispute, such as the board chair or one of the musician negotiators? Particularly since this particular quote is so bland and lacking any particular perspective that anyone could have made it?
“Each side blamed the other for botching this chance to save a charismatic and artistically gifted leader. Board chairman Jon Campbell, an executive vice president at Wells Fargo, said there would be a pause as both sides sorted through the wreckage.”
I will say again, this isn’t entirely untrue, but this is a tidy bit of revisionist history. Yes, the MOA leaders did blame the musicians for the fact that Osmo left (and a number of other things as well), but at no point did they ever express any real interest in keeping Osmo around. Leading up to this event, Michael Henson gave an astonishingly disrespectful interview on Minnesota Public Radio expressing indifference to Osmo leaving, and Board Chair Jon Campbell was equally cavalier in his public statements. Richard Davis, who headed the board’s negotiation committee, flatly declared that “Osmo may have to go,” if that’s what it took to implement the board’s new business model. This was all the more insulting in that their stated purpose for the lockout had nothing to do with Osmo or his leadership—it was primarily about reducing the musicians’ payroll. So why did they go after Osmo that way? Regardless, the cold reality is the musicians worked hard to keep Osmo here, made many statements to that end, and continue to advocate for his return now. On the other hand, the MOA leadership, in its public statements, was at best blasé about the whole thing. That’s a crucial difference to point out, but you’ve suggested that everyone was equally concerned.
And Jon Campbell’s comment about a “pause” in negotiations. There was no indication that it was a “cooling down” period to sort out the wreckage. It was clear that from his perspective Osmo’s departure removed a major incentive for the MOA to settle, and the leadership was ready to double down and starve out the musicians until they buckled. This is why so many people reacted to horror and intensified their efforts to find other ways to force a settlement. So again, the halting of negotiations was a specific strategy employed against the musicians, but in this version of events Campbell’s words are transformed to become a passive-voice statement of regret and contemplation.
“Those four met for lunch at Nicollet Island Inn to see if there might be a way forward, but the musicians walked away after the second meeting. Wright felt they were just rehashing old talking points.”
This is a clear, but subtle example of one of my recurring problems with this story. At this point in the narrative, subtle shadings can significantly change how readers perceive an event, and you need a careful, perceptive observer (and reporter) to sort things out and present them to the reader.
My issue with this statement is that from my perspective it essentially portrays the musicians as walking away abruptly, making them seem somewhat flaky and intransigent, and only then providing a glimmer of their rationale for doing so. This needs to be explored more deeply. Were the board negotiators indeed restating and earlier offer, as the musicians observed? Were the musicians justified in believing that this was a stalling action, and that they were better served by sticking with the main negotiators rather than this “splinter” group? We don’t know. All we know from this detail is the musicians “walked away,” which has very specific connotations. This kind of detail could be a moment that reflects larger patterns and gives greater insight to what was happening behind the scenes… but all we know is the musicians “walked away.”
Again, this isn’t wrong, and I realize there are space limitations for this story. Clearly, you’re trying to be brief. But this feels off to me.
“Dick Cisek, a former orchestra president, said last week he felt the deal ‘was a reasonable compromise.’”
Again, I’m not sure what this quote adds, or why you approached Dick Cisek. It’s not that he’s uninterested in the dispute’s resolution… I’m sure he is. But was he involved behind the scenes? Was he in communication with both sides, or trusted by both sides? I’m not sure why we’re introduced to a brand new voice at this point, who again weighs in with a four-word phrase that adds no profound insights to the situation.
“From the start, negotiators were at cross purposes. Campbell and Davis, both bankers, presented what they felt was an airtight case to slash $5 million in annual expenses. Musicians could help decide where the money would come from, but the number was etched in stone. This did not feel like bargaining to the union.”
Let me point out again that the above is not entirely untrue. I understand that the intention here is to briefly touch on Campell and Davis’s thoughts—to provide a starting point for the discussion. And yes, I’ll grant that the pair might have felt they made an airtight case.
But one of the key parts of the dispute has been that to my knowledge, no one else has agreed with them on this point. The financials that they used to make this case were roundly critiqued, to the point that President Henson was called to testify before state lawmakers where he was subjected to hostile questioning. The city of Minneapolis had significant problems with the MOA’s finances, as did multiple outside observers. In light of this sustained criticism, I really wish there was more probing of why the leadership thought they had an airtight case, or why the many critics from all over the country were wrong. Or if they still feel today their case is as airtight. Or, if from an objective position, this was really true. This point is too central to the dispute to be tossed off like this.
And this gets to the final sentence of the above quote. First, I’m irritated that this article seems to buy into the idea that it was “the union” that rejected this offer. It wasn’t “the union,” it was the musicians. The musicians were clear—on many occasions—that they were driving the actions, and turning to the union for logistical assistance, resources and such. But the musicians were in control. The idea of some faceless, menacing union coming in from “the outside” to stir things up was a fabrication and talking point of the MOA management, and not based on reality.
Plus this statement mischaracterizes the musicians’ position. They weren’t just irritated that the MOA wasn’t negotiating… they had no confidence in the “airtight case” that Campbell and Davis were making, and certainly didn’t trust the financial data that was underpinning this “airtight case.” This is a subtle point, but an important one.
“The musicians made no economic counterproposal and the lockout was declared on Oct. 1, 2012.”
This is a talking point of the management, and greatly shades reality. The musicians did make counters (ultimately eleven by their count), including an offer to enter into binding arbitration. This shows that they weren’t averse to negotiating. But as I mentioned above, they didn’t buy the “airtight case” or the financial data the MOA leadership was providing. Arbitration would require an outside observer delving into the ledger books, which would have independently verified the MOA’s claims… and based on information that subsequently came out, it is clear why management shot that idea down.
“The union also held out hope that a financial angel or two would descend with extraordinary gifts to cover the costs of a new contract.”
So, Local 30-73 was sitting with fingers crossed that someone was going to shower money on the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra?
This is an extraordinary sentence, and one that that if true would shed much light on motives, strategies, and aspirations of the musicians. So… is it true? You need much more sourcing to make this point. Who told you this? What was the context? Was this what the management thought was going on?
And here is another way that wording can greatly shade how the story comes off. As written, it sounds like the musicians were unrealistic in hoping for money, and how the money would be used once they got it. Plus, they come off as passive, too, without an active strategy and being in the thrall of an outside union.
What about writing the above sentence this way: “The musicians continued to cultivate major donors, along with corporations and foundations, to secure additional sources of revenue or bridge money that could lead to a mutually-acceptable contract.”
“The public-relations strategy energized groups such as Save Our Symphony Minnesota and Orchestrate Excellence. Concerts put on by the musicians routinely sold out. But many in the general public felt musicians were well-paid.”
There are many problems with this statement. First, the chronology is… odd, and seems rather scatter-shot. Far worse is the issue of agency. The story implies that these two groups formed in response to a public relations strategy by the musicians. The reality is they formed at very different times for very different reasons—but both formed independently from the musicians. SOS MN, which I am more familiar with, formed because passionate music lovers felt that their voices were not being heard, and wanted to advocate for the needs of the audience members.
And, more specifically, SOS MN came into being primarily because of the outrage felt towards the MOA leadership when it came to light that the MOA had bought up all kinds of Internet domain names that included the words “save” and “orchestra.” This dramatically demonstrated that the management had pre-planned the lockout, and wasn’t so much fighting to create a more sustainable financial model than it was to crush the union and sideline outside advocates. The organization got another boost when it came to light that at precisely the same time the MOA was claiming poverty, it was awarding $200,000 in bonuses to President Michael Henson.
So why are you suggesting that it was the musicians’ PR that was energizing outside groups?
And in a larger sense, why do you make no mention of the Internet domains or the bonuses, since they are widely seen as being turning points in the dispute, and items that significantly shaped public opinion?
Also, I don’t understand why you state “many” felt musicians were “well-paid.” This feels like a gratuitous non sequitur. The point of the musicians’ PR campaign wasn’t to address public perceptions about how “well-paid” they were, but rather to show the value of what they did and the importance of live music in the community. So why suddenly introduce the issue of pay and draw attention to it like this? And when you say “many,” what do you mean? What do you base this on? Especially after listing how successful the public relations campaign was in creating audience advocacy groups and selling tickets, it feels like you decided to slap on some sort of negative to restore a sense of “balance.”
Couldn’t you, again, go with something more neutral for that last sentence, like: “Even so, not all were convinced, and public pressure alone wasn’t enough to change the dynamic.”
“The closest any angel came to solving the crisis was when Marilyn Carlson Nelson spearheaded an effort to raise money for $20,000 signing bonuses in a September proposal that musicians rejected.”
This statement concerns me on several levels. Marilyn Carlson Nelson is extraordinarily generous, has many resources, and clearly loves the Orchestra. But you characterize this deal as if she was casually tossing around money and the musicians simply refused to pick it up off the floor. As a reporter with connections, you were well placed to delve into that proposal and learn about the particulars. Were there truly no strings attached? Was it simply a free $20,000 check for all who signed up for it?
I have no connections with the unnamed foundations that apparently offered the money to back up this deal (strangely, they never came forward themselves to discuss it), and was not privy to any of the details, but I immediately saw a whole battalion of red flags in how the offer was made. These red flags made me wonder what the real story was. It’s interesting to note that in his letter to the city of Minneapolis, Lee Henderson indicated that this $20,000 figure included money that his group raised—money raised for a very different purpose and rolled into this deal without his knowledge and consent. So there was clearly more going on here than meets the eye. Plus, I was stunned that the big area foundations would step in like that to give money as an incentive for signing a labor contract. That is a highly political move, and one which would be surprisingly out of character for most of the big foundations around town. At best, this “deal” needed a lot more scrutiny to see what was going on.
But more simply, why didn’t you ask the musicians about it? Or why they rejected it?
“On the night of the Symphony Ball, for example, Kelley told a reporter that he and Zech were flying to New York the next morning to meet with Zavadil and Simon in Mitchell’s office. When they arrived, Kelley said they were told there would be no talks under the lockout. ‘They couldn’t have told us that over the phone?’ Kelley asked recently.”
This is the kind of detail that readers love to pore over—the human details that give a sense of the behind-the-scenes machinations. I can see why you’d add something like this to the mix.
This is the only such detail you’ve added to this point, and it is one that has no context, no analysis, and no rebuttal from the musicians. You’ve just told us that they sent a group of people off to New York on a wild goose chase just because they could. At the very least, could you ask the musicians how they remember this chain of events? Fact check them? Ask if there were unavoidable problems, or if it was a hard-nosed strategic move? Or, for the sake of “balance,” add a parallel anecdote about the management “dinging” the musicians?
“The Road Back”
In light of the extensive commentary we’ve seen on this topic from sources all around the country, including an excellent article in the New Yorker, this whole wrap-up section is a letdown. Presumably, you’ve had interviews with enough of the big players that you could have a much deeper, richer look forward that would give a clue as to what the ongoing issues are and how they can be addressed. The Star Tribune is, after all, the local paper of record.
* * *
In the end, I want to say that Graydon Royce has been a valued reporter who has contributed much to the local arts community over many years. And his breakthrough story on the fact that the board had been manipulating endowment draws as part of a campaign to secure state bonding money was huge—and another major turning point in public opinion. He is not an enemy.
But this story disturbs me. By shading details and leaving out key parts to the story, I feel like this piece mischaracterizes what happened… and why it happened.
Also, this was the largest such labor dispute in our county’s history—one that involved all they key power brokers of the region and executives from two of the top banks in the country. As such, it has attracted international attention. We need a deeper analysis. I recognize that Graydon was likely working with time and space limitations, but I wanted more from this piece. More details, more quotes, more… insight. I wanted coverage worthy of this topic.
I hate to think that this is the final word on the labor dispute.