Let’s Call This Thing What It Really Is

I have to admit—I’m frustrated.  One of the things that has been irritating for me about the ongoing Minnesota Orchestra labor dispute is to see how, after all this time, people are still treating the lockout as a garden-variety labor negotiation (this piece in the Star Tribune is a recent example of this line of thinking) where both sides engage in a balanced game of give-and-take.

In a way, I can understand where this line of reasoning comes from.  I think many of us cling to a deeply-held belief that a labor negotiation is a situation where two sides stake out opposing positions, usually on key issues of pay.  One side says workers should be paid X amount, the other advocates for Y amount.  Usually there is wrangling over ancillary positions which are offered at the same time to either sweeten the pot or tighten the screws.

We are also conditioned to believe that that The Truth—or at least a prudent deal—must obviously be found in between these two stated positions.  We experience these same dynamics in other parts of our lives, including politics, business negotiations, fighting siblings, everything.  Offer followed by counter-offer, followed by further offer… it’s all like watching a tennis match.  As long as the offers and counter-offers keep coming, a deal can be reached.  Everyone ultimately wins because no one completely wins.

We need to stop thinking about the Minnesota Orchestra labor dispute in these terms.

Over the last year many intelligent, well-meaning people have tried this approach, arguing that this situation was a straightforward negotiation involving rational people who could meet in the middle if they just put their minds to it.

They have all been proven wrong.

Minneapolis Mayor R. T. Rybak and legendary Orchestra patron Judy Dayton offered to host a celebration concert where the Orchestra could celebrate its Grammy nomination.  The board refused their invitation.  Orchestrate Excellence, a group founded to bring the sides together, created a report comparing the Minnesota Orchestra with the Cleveland Orchestra to help facilitate dialog and present a useful model for future compromise.  Management dismissed it out of hand.  Respected arts leader Alan Fletcher came to town with talk tough for both sides, and offered his views about surviving difficult negotiations.  Management rebuffed him.  Senator George Mitchell, who famously brought peace to Northern Ireland, was hired to mediate a solution to the crisis.  Management negotiated around him, and ultimately rejected his recommendations because to do so would cause them to “lose leverage.”  Outside observers called for an independent financial analysis of the Orchestra.  Management hired its own firm to do a targeted analysis based only on information it provided.  Concerned community members launched an “SOS Osmo campaign” to raise money specifically so that the Orchestra’s Music Director Osmo Vänskä could stay.  Management blithely suggested it would roll these funds into its own general fundraising operations, and made callous statements that Osmo was free move on.

Again and again, people from all parts of the community have made serious offers to resolve this dispute, or to at least address critical areas of concern.  But the Orchestra’s management has rebuffed each and every one.

So why is the Orchestra’s leadership still considered a serious partner in a labor negotiation?  At what point are we allowed to call a spade a spade and admit that they have no interest in solving this situation?

There are other reasons to drop this pretense.  The musicians have, in fact, tried to play ball with the management and have been rebuffed every time.  Even board member Ken Cutler confirmed this in his recent letter to the Star Tribune.  The musicians’ own webpage details 11 separate attempts to engage with the management and resolve the dispute. (Don’t believe me?  Click here.)

Plus, management’s offer is hardly what one would call an “opening bid.”  The Orchestra’s leaders have said repeatedly that the pay cuts and organizational changes they’re demanding are absolute; they will not negotiate on the specific amounts, but only the mechanisms in which these cuts are implemented.  I’m sorry, but a clerk asking if you want to pay by cash, check, or credit card does not mean the two of you are negotiating about an item’s price.

And more important, the proposal made by the management is not just a simple offer as one would expect to find in a normal labor dispute, touching on issues of pay or the labor contract.  As I’ve written about many times, management’s offer goes far beyond that—it seeks to impose a complete, systematic restructuring of the organization at all levels, with no room for outside input or debate.  If this proposal were to be enacted, the Minnesota Orchestra would become a very different organization.

Let’s think about this statement in a different way.  Since we’re all accustomed to point-and-counterpoint, what would a mirror-opposite counter proposal really look like, if the musicians were to respond identically to the management’s position?

Well, it would probably contain the following:

  • A 40% pay increase for the musicians.
  • The musicians would enact a 25% reduction of the administrative staff.
  • The concertmaster would have final determination of all hiring and firing of administrative staff, along with overseeing disciplinary action and determining compensation levels.
  • The concertmaster would receive cash bonuses equal to 60% of his or her salary.
  • Musician representatives could mandate Orchestra staff members take on speaking engagements or adjunct faculty positions around the state—as far away as, say, Mankato or Duluth—without paying the staff members’ travel or incidental expenses.  The musicians could also argue that since such outside jobs were possible, the staff members in question could suffer additional pay cuts.
  • Management and administrative staff would work longer days and over the holidays.
  • Seniority pay and merit raises would be eliminated for management and administrative staff; henceforth all workers throughout the organization would be paid flat fees based on employee classification.
  • The musicians could change the mission statement at will, and unilaterally re-write the letters of incorporation to change the governance structure of the organization.

Based on this list, it might be easy to guess why the musicians haven’t put forth such demands—this hypothetical proposal would be laughed at as completely absurd, arbitrary, and financially unsound.  So why do we still treat the management’s proposal as serious and responsible?  Why are we allowing these ridiculous demands to be considered a legitimate opening bid?  Why are some still expecting the musicians to respond rationally to such an irrational proposal?

At the 401st day of the lockout, I think we’re well past the point where this whole unseemly affair can be treated as a traditional labor negotiation. The management’s side is getting far, far too much deference, and the demand that the musicians just make an offer so both sides can meet somewhere in some “middle ground” is unsupportable.  At this point, to think of the sides as equal and parallel is a false equivalency.  At the same time, I think it is unhelpful to strive for a phantom sense of “balance” by presenting all sides as if they are equal, without additional digging or fact-checking to see if all sides are equally true.

I think it is long past time we call this situation what it is—a hostile takeover action.



19 thoughts on “Let’s Call This Thing What It Really Is

  1. I would say that you have hit the head with a nail or something like that. This is unequivocally the most accurate summation of the situation. However it changes nothing other than “how do we get rid of the Board?”


  2. Keep in mind that Michael Klingensmith, Publisher and CEO of Star Tribune Media is on the board and probably controls a lot of what makes it out of the editorial pages. The Strib is very unlikely to report or editorialize anything that is not favorable to the board, however I would like to see you or Emily write a very detailed editorial response. Send it in and see if the Strib will actually publish it.


    • The StarTribune is not the only problem. Minnesota Public Radio has been strangely quiet, apart from a few “he said / she said” stories and one live broadcast during the past year. I had always thought of them as an advocate for classical music and the musicians who make that music; now, I’m no longer so sure about that. Already, after Garrison Keillor’s fact-based comments about the lockout on his PHC show last Saturday, “Symphony Cast” (American Public Media) is asking on its Facebook page whether it was Keillor’s “place” to make those comments. The corporate types will be hounding him endlessly now, I suppose. Let’s all tell “Symphony Cast” what we think of their insane question.


  3. Excellent! This blog post needs wide distribution. Thank you for wording a hypothetical contract proposal from the musicians’ viewpoint. I second “george”‘s comment about getting this published in the Strib. Would Klingensmith ever offer fair representation?


    • Well, if he refused to publish this response, or something like it, and he gave some sort of reason (!) then that refusal should be publicized.


  4. I think the musicians should round up local supporters and benefactors, draw up a charter, and start a new orchestra that leaves the old board behind. They’re already playing concerts on their own — why not go all the way?


      • To play for whom, and at what level? And to be managed with the same care and adroitness by what organization? To compete with what other orchestra? Never take a knife to a gun fight–as we prove every day here in Texas, sadly.


  5. Exactly! Minnesotans need to stand up to end this hostile takeover by the board and get something done about eliminating this so- called board. I want to see MPR, PBS, the mayor. the governor, the legislature , music schools and other arts organizations step up and yell in protest about the situation and demand that the board either acquiesce or resign. They are not qualified to run a ping pong match let alone a major symphony orchestra. Why are we tip toing around them?


  6. If the newspaper will not print this letter on its editorial page it should be printed as a full-page, large type advertisement. It should also be forwarded to all city and state officials in Minnesota. Clearly the Board should be removed FOR CAUSE.


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