“Trust but verify.”  This is a Reagan era mantra that’s as relevant today as it was when President Reagan used it regarding nuclear disarmament.  You’d think it would reveal paranoia, but in fact, it’s an excellent rule in nearly every aspect of life.  Even with writing and writers.  With management and workers in a labor dispute, as in the ongoing labor dispute between the Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra and the Minnesota Orchestral Association Board and executive management.

MN Orchestra (Credit: Greg Helgeson)

MN Orchestra (Credit: Greg Helgeson)

I worked for the MN Orchestra in the 1980’s for about five years.  It was a time when the Board left management alone to do its job, and both of them left the Artistic Department alone to do what it does best: make music.  The President didn’t want complete control over artistic decisions.  He loved what he did best: raise money, be the liaison between community leaders and the Board.  At that time, if you attended a Friday night concert, you’d see half the Board there.  The other half attended Saturday night.  Were there problems and issues?  Of course.  But the business was music, not making money; and yet, they made money, especially on the Viennese Sommerfest music festival during July.  I remember back then, there was always a concert it seemed, and a wonderful diverse musical offering among subscription, pops, and summer.  There were much fewer presentations than during the last three years.  The leadership at the MN Orchestra in the 1980’s understood the non-profit performing arts business model and that you make money by increasing the number of concerts, not cutting.

I haven’t written about the MN Orchestra labor dispute in almost a month because I’ve alternated between shocked disbelief and profound sadness, rage and hope.  The management’s deadline of Sept. 15 to reach a settlement came and went.  On that day, the musicians performed a concert at the Lake Harriet bandshell in Minneapolis, a traditional pre-season outdoor music feast, for over 4000 people.  At that same concert, the musicians announced that they would produce a series of concerts themselves through mid-December, including subscription-type and educational family concerts.  They need donations for the concert series.  The first concerts are the weekend of October 4.  World-renowned pianist Emanuel Ax will perform two piano concertos with them.  The musicians have worked hard to maintain contact with their audience and the community, and have consistently treated everyone with respect.  They have been consistent also in what information they need from management in order to make a counteroffer.  They have not wavered in their determination to defend and protect what they have accomplished in the last ten years.  That is, the fact that the MN Orchestra had achieved a level of artistic excellence that rocketed it into the top 10 American orchestras, and making it a “destination orchestra” rather than a “feeder orchestra”.  The latter serves as a revolving door for young musicians on their way to a destination orchestra where they can stay for years, sometimes their entire lives.

For the last month, the two sides have had an agreed-upon mediator through which to work and negotiate.  The musicians have been using the mediator, and approved the mediator’s “play and talk” proposal for 4 months while negotiations continue.  Management, on the other hand, has spent most of its time and efforts bypassing the mediation process, announcing proposals through the media, and even laying claim to some money that really doesn’t belong to them; i.e. the SOS: Save Osmo group’s fundraising pledges made to be given to the MOA AFTER they meet certain conditions like retaining Osmo Vanska as Music Director and ending the lockout of the musicians.

MOA Management has agreed to mediation, then bypassed it.  They have agreed to the mediator’s condition of confidentiality, then bypassed that, too.  They continue to make offers nearly identical to offers the musicians have rejected in the past.  Now, there is an air of desperation surrounding management’s actions and rhetoric.  They had expected to back the musicians against a wall and keep them there until they caved.  Instead, the musicians have management backed against the wall.  As a result, management has been revealing its true colors, especially their untrustworthiness.

Trust.  It’s a major, major element in successful human relations.  When someone agrees to confidentiality, you expect them to maintain confidentiality.  When they don’t, they show they are not trustworthy.  When management doesn’t do what it says it will do, it demonstrates its untrustworthiness.  They reveal that they are not acting in good faith, in honesty, and in a true understanding of what is at stake.  They continue to try to control the process by making public offers, offers that guarantee the 2013-14 season, that last for 2-3 years, that cut the musicians’ salaries over the life of the contract by 25%, and that apparently make no mention of the 200+ work rule changes management made in the master agreement.  Why is management trying to make all this so hard?

It’s really easy.  The musicians have already approved the mediator’s proposal for “play and talk” for four months which means the lockout would end, concerts would begin, Osmo Vanska would stay, and negotiations would continue.  Management needs to approve it too so that the lockout will be lifted, the musicians will return to work, and substantive negotiations can move forward.  Whether or not the 2013-14 season would continue beyond the 4 months would depend on whether management negotiates in good faith and with the goal of reaching an agreement both sides can live with.  The musicians know they will need to make some sacrifices.  Management needs to also make sacrifices by giving up some of their demands and work rule changes.  Management is not going to “win” this labor dispute; in fact, they’d lost it last spring when Osmo Vanska wrote his letter to the Board laying out what needed to happen for him to remain Music Director.

I found an excellent open letter through Facebook yesterday, posted by a local businessman, Steve Kriesel.  Read it here.  He spells out the situation clearly and concisely.  What impressed me was this passage:

I own a sales and manufacturing company based 4 miles from Orchestra Hall. I know my job: It’s to enhance our community by expanding my company with local workers. Investment bankers like Mr. Davis and Mr. Campbell would argue my job is to take my products overseas to make a larger profit at the expense of quality and community. In some business models, you win if you make a cheap product.

There it is, folks.  Management’s new business model.  It’s a for-profit business model, not one for a non-profit business.

The “last” deadline is Monday, Sept. 30.  Mr. Vanska has told management that

Osmo Vanska and MO, Nov. 2011

Osmo Vanska and MO, Nov. 2011

he and the orchestra need to be in rehearsal the week of Sept. 30 in order to be in top shape for their Carnegie Hall concerts in early November.  The musicians will be in rehearsal for the concerts next weekend, but not in Orchestra Hall, and not for the MOA.

The Board needs to start thinking in terms of earning back the trust they have lost.  They need to stop believing that they can win this dispute….


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