And Suddenly, a Media Blitz

The Minnesota Orchestra is in the news again—in a very big way.

This is surprising.  The flurry of coverage following Osmo Vänskä’s resignation has died down, and there have been no new deals, no new revelations, and no real breakthroughs to report.  Yes, a few random letters to the editors and a few blogs, but nothing big.

So it is a bit unexpected to see a couple of major news articles appear in the last 24 hours, including a front-page, over-the-fold story in the state’s largest newspaper.  Despite its prominent position, the Star Tribune story promises more than it ultimately delivers—essentially the various principles intone they are disappointed that events have reached an impasse.    A feature in Minnesota Public Radio’s online news, however, is interesting in that it features more extensive comments from both sides, which help us to better understand the respective positions.

On the one hand, I am genuinely grateful to the Orchestra’s leadership—and particularly  negotiator Doug Kelley—for speaking candidly to the press.  I greatly appreciate learning about the leadership’s thinking because there have been so few chances to delve into their line of reasoning, their aspirations, and their opinions on this ugly affair.

But I am also genuinely astonished by what Doug has to say.

For one, Doug said he believes the musicians’ demand that the board has to lift the lockout before negotiations can resume is simply a delaying tactic.

Doug, the musicians have been without salary or healthcare for over a year.  Can you offer any rational reason as to why they would want to delay this process?  How much longer are their unemployment benefits going to last at this point? Can you not concede (or perceive) that there are other considerations at play here?

But the most stunning statement of the entire piece is here:

Doug Kelley sees something else behind the musicians’ stance. He believes Minnesota is being used by the national union to draw a line.

“I think the reason that Minnesota is such a battleground,” he said, “is because the International union has said they are really trying to change the business model in Minnesota and we can’t let that happen.”

There have been many disturbing statements made over the course of the lockout, but this is one of the most jaw-dropping of all.

First.  Doug, I know you have been a huge supporter of the Orchestra for many, many years.  But in echoing the sentiment of Bill Eddin’s great recent blog, this wonderful past history of support does not excuse you for making this deeply problematic statement.  Forgive the bluntness, but in light of the board’s actions, this statement feels hypocritical to me.  The board has decided—unilaterally—that the former business model of the Minnesota Orchestra is broken and has to be changed.  This is the entire basis of this labor dispute… management is trying to change the business model, and famously, the musicians have been shut out the process.

So why are you furious that the musicians are also trying to change the business model?  As stakeholders, are they not at least as important as the board is in creating a new one?  Won’t they feel the effects far more than the management? And if so, why on earth would you prohibit them from bringing in outside assistance and guidance?

…Hasn’t the board already done just that?

According to the Orchestra’s 990 tax form, in the fiscal year ending just prior to the lockout, the Orchestra expended $184,183 in legal fees.  That’s a sharp increase from the previous year where it expended $49,588, or the year before that when it only expended $11,830.  Without doing a deep dive into all the finances, I don’t have before me precisely what those large legal fees were for—but it strains credulity to think that they weren’t in some way laying the legal groundwork for the lockout strategy that began two months later.

After all, the Orchestra was hardly making its strategy up out of thin air, or as it went along.  Many have noted that Minneapolis law firm of Felhaber, Larson, Fenlon and Vogt represented the Orchestra’s management at the bargaining table.  What is curious about this fact is that this was the identical agency that represented Crystal Sugar when it locked out its workers for nearly two years.  It is also the agency that represented the management of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra (SPCO) when it locked out it’s musicians at exactly the same time. And in all cases, these lockouts were nearly identical in justification and execution.

So again, the managements in all three of these very similar lockouts were assisted by the same legal firm, and two of the lockouts happened at precisely at the same time.  To your point, Doug, isn’t this evidence of outside interference?  Are you arguing that bringing in an outside labor union is forbidden, but bringing in an outside law firm is okay?

But the web of outside networks seems to include more than a single law firm.   Doug, are you suggesting that there have been no points of contact between leaders of the Minnesota Orchestra and the SPCO during their nearly identical labor disputes that started at the same time?  Or between the Minnesota Orchestra and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, which just went through a very similar labor dispute only a short time before? Or that the attempts to buy up domain names including the words “save” and “Minnesota Orchestra” didn’t occur as a response to the work of the audience advocacy group “Save Our Symphony” during the lockout in Detroit?  Or that discussions and information from meetings with League of American Orchestras played no part in the strategic thinking, even though the Orchestra quotes this group extensively in its strategic plan?

And Doug Kelley is worried about outside forces influencing the musicians?

Doug, the management already brought in outsiders when it launched its attack, and tried to make its new business model a shining example for the rest of the country.  You can hardly blame the musicians for marshaling similar forces to stage a defense.

But one final note I must make.  Doug, the role of the board of directors is to safeguard the Minnesota Orchestra.  Not one part of it, not one member of the team, but the entire organization as a whole.

It is not the board’s duty to safeguard Minnesota from the encroachment of union-based business models.

Why does it matter to you if the musicians talk to their union… or any other union? Aren’t there already unions in the state?  If so, why do you seem to be worried about unions somehow corrupting Minnesota? You don’t even bother to explain why you think unionism is such a terrible scourge.  If unionism is a bad model for the Orchestra, convince the musicians that there is a better idea or a better solution.

Don’t destroy the organization simply to make an abstract, ideological point that you can’t seem to even justify.

Please, drop the talking points and end the lockout. It doesn’t matter that you don’t like the musicians’ allies in the negotiations—they’re not fond of management’s friends either.  You have to negotiate with them.  Do so.  Now.

[edit: the first version of this article made reference to Doug Kelley being a board member himself.  I have learned that he is not—he is simply acting as a negotiator on behalf of the board.  The article has been edited to reflect this.]



7 thoughts on “And Suddenly, a Media Blitz

  1. Doug Kelley can be a little unclear at times, and I interpreted his statement as: “The International union has said, ‘They [the management] are trying to change the business model, and we [the union] can’t let that happen.’ ” But I agree with your overall sentiment that they [the management] seem to be fighting some sort of quixotic battle against unions.


    • Barry, you bring up an excellent point. One of the problems with written transcriptions is they may miss those small points of inflection or emphasis that clarifies meaning, and I concede such a thing could be the case here. That said, the numerous statements by Doug, management, and board members suggests that they see “the union” as the real problem, which is why I stand by my statements here.


  2. Yes, it had been assumed that Doug Kelley was on the board. In the media and on Front line I believe he has been introduced as the board representative implying he was a board member. Interesting to note that Doug Kelley’s name does not appear on the donor list for the Building for the Future campaign unless he is listed as anonymous.


  3. MPR buried the lead: “Kelley said board members have already met with Vanska to discuss a return.” What is that all about? It seems like a rather big news story to me.


    • Yes I can’t believe there were no followup questions or digging on the Osmo comments. What does him ‘bring realistic’ mean? Did they offer him a cut rate contract? Did they tell him to expect and embrace the ‘good enough’ business model? Share the baton with Mr. Henson?


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