10,000 lakes, one fish, and no settlements

And not a lot of truth from employers in the Land of the North Star either, it seems:

Musicians for the Minnesota Orchestra say management is threatening to lock them out at midnight Sunday unless there is a contract agreement by then.

Orchestra musicians say they will vote on a management contract proposal on Saturday.

Notification of a possible lockout was given in a cover letter musicians say they received with a final contract offer Tuesday. The letter says unless there is an agreement by midnight Sunday, when the current contract runs out, management will consider musicians locked out. Orchestra management has not commented on the letter, except to confirm that is was sent and that the lockout language is part of a legal requirement. Management will make decisions based on developments over the weekend.

For five months a contract proposal has been before the musicians, who have yet to formally respond. The musicians said they have insufficient information about the orchestra’s finances.

The “lockout language is part of a legal requirement”? Perhaps they’ve decided to offshore their labor law. Managements can certainly lock out employees under certain conditions, but they don’t have to, and they don’t have to say anything about doing so as part of a “last, best, and final” offer.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Mississippi River, the board chair and acting CEO of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra distorted a different reality:

At the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, which also has a labor contract that expires Sunday, the two sides have passed proposals back and forth this week. Meetings are planned for Saturday and Sunday.

The St. Paul musicians oppose a management proposal to fund a retirement incentive for older players and a lower salary for new musicians. “We think they have the money but they are not spending the money correctly,” bassoonist Carole Mason Smith said in an interview on Thursday.

Chairman Dobson West, in a memo rejecting the latest union proposal, wrote that musicians’ minimum annual salaries have increased by 12.5 percent from July 2008.

It would have been more honest of him to admit that, as part of that “increase,” the musicians agreed to re-open the agreement and accept a one-year cut of 12% for the 2009-10 season.

Negotiations have come to resemble political campaigns more and more, and in the worst possible way – as Bill Clinton was reputed to have once said, the Commandment most violated in politics was the one about bearing false witness. The problem with such violations in the context of a labor negotiation is that those who lie and those who are lied to (or against), have to try to work together after the negotiation is over – and all negotiations end at some point.

This is a lesson that musicians need to heed as well, of course; I’ve seen a fair amount of spin put on facts by musicians that certainly verged on outright falsehood. But in a workplace where the unionized employees stick around far longer than anyone else, the memories of being lied to, or lied about, tend to be more damaging when held by those musicians.

And yes, it is conventional wisdom that music directors are supposed to avoid public statements about labor negotiations, but couldn’t Vänskä do a little better than this?

Also Thursday, music director Osmo Vänskä released a statement that said it is not his role to be involved in negotiations. “These are difficult times, but I believe our Board and our musicians will find the right solution to take good care of this great orchestra,” said Vänskä, who has declined interview requests.

Given that the Board’s economic proposal hasn’t changed for five months, his belief in their willingness to “find the right solution” is touching. Given the massive cut they’re demanding, that faith does not appear to be justified.

I think I prefer the approach that Edo de Waart, an “Artistic Partner” at the SPCO, (and our music director in Milwaukee) took:

Q Are you following the contract issues at SPCO?

A If you ask me this question in two weeks, I would say yes. Since I’m only a partner, I do not inject myself into it. My point of view is this: If a country with 350 million people that prides itself as one of the greatest countries that ever was can’t sustain a 35-piece full-time chamber orchestra, the only one in that country, that’s really shameful. I’m not blaming anybody, but there should be a way that can exist. This is a jewel. It’s a beautiful little orchestra. It cannot, in my view, it should not be made smaller and it needs to keep its competitive edge by attracting the best players by paying a decent salary.

That gives a new meaning to the phrase “Dutch courage,” doesn’t it? And speaking of new meanings, it may be time to re-define “solidarity”:

A lockout prevents employees from reporting to work or receiving pay. Musicians may still picket in the case of a lockout. However, Orchestra Hall is undergoing renovation and will not be used for concerts when the season begins Oct. 18 at the Minneapolis Convention Center.

Dan McConnell, business manager of the Minneapolis Building and Construction Trades Council, said workers on the $52 million project are governed by an agreement that prevents them from joining a work stoppage. “We’re certainly sensitive to the musicians, but it would be a violation of our contract if we were to walk out,” McConnell said.

And Samuel Gompers stirs uneasily in his grave, wondering why the labor movement blames all its troubles on politicians.


About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

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  • I am so sad and frustrated by the comments I see and hear from the public concerning this and so many other labor situations. I’m thinking particularly of the guy in Wisconsin in the Walker dustup who was carrying a sign saying “I don’t have medical insurance from my job, why should you?” When did working people agree to turn on each other like this? When did we stop seeing it as “hey, he’s got medical insurance at his job, why don’t I?” People just don’t or won’t see that no matter who you are, no matter what you do, there will always be someone who thinks you’re overpaid and could be replaced by someone at half the salary. If you support this kind of thing in one workplace eventually it will make its way to yours and you will deserve it because you fed it and encouraged it elsewhere.

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