News from the North

There have been been several developments in the Twin Labor Disputes in the State Least Likely To Experience Labor Disputes (Or At Least Not-Nice Ones). None of them offer much visible hope for quick resolution of either situation.

On the Minnesota Orchestra front, Graydon Royce of the Minneapolis StarTribune, who has done as good a job of covering this dispute as I’ve ever seen done in a field rather difficult for non-insiders to read, wrote a long article on the state of play as the lock-out reached the six-month milestone:

With no formal talks on the horizon, the remainder of the Minnesota Orchestra’s 2012-13 season almost certainly will be canceled.

The opening of a renovated Orchestra Hall in July could be another victim of a bitter fight that has cost millions in economic activity and frustrated music fans.

The labor dispute that has silenced the orchestra will hit the six-month mark Monday, making it the most protracted among top 10 U.S. orchestras in decades.

While the orchestra has a 2013-14 season planned, it has, for obvious reasons, delayed making an announcement….

Two months after both sides agreed to the independent analysis, they are expected to announce Monday agreement on two entities to undertake the review.

I wasn’t aware of the agreement to an independent analysis, although the invaluable Emily Hogstad of Song of the Lark has some skepticism about it, and posts an email from orchestra management that is actually quite funny:

Next week will mark one full year since the Minnesota Orchestra and the Musicians’ Union began contract negotiations. Our Board put forward a contract proposal on the first day of negotiations—in order to allow time for active debate—and 12 months later we have yet to receive a counter from the musicians. This is an unprecedented action by the Musicians’ Union. Across the nation, musicians at other orchestras have respectfully submitted counterproposals to their boards, even in challenging situations where they have been asked for significant concessions.

I love the “respectfully” bit. Is the problem in Minnesota really that those asked to take a 40% cut haven’t been sufficiently “respectful” to those proposing said cut? There should be an old saying about those who wish for respect needing to act in ways that can elicit it.

Our volunteer Board members will continue to do everything possible to remove any barrier the musicians say is standing in the way of them making a serious counterproposal that helps to address our Orchestra’s $6 million operating deficit. (Editor’s Note: The musicians requested financial analysis in September. A representative for management called it a frolic and detour five weeks before they agreed to it.)

But I’m sure they called it a “frolic and detour” with the utmost respect for the musicians. No doubt that same respect is why they don’t consider asking the musicians to take multi-million dollar pay cuts to be a “barrier” to the musicians offering a counter-proposal. Otherwise, of course, they’d “remove” their proposal, right?

Going back to the Graydon Royce article, though, he catches MinnOrch CEO Michael Henson in a very telling quote:

Michael Henson, the orchestra’s president and CEO, suspects the union may be delaying negotiations to use the reopening of Orchestra Hall as leverage.

“The hall opening is a wonderful moment,” Henson said, “but we need to be a sustainable orchestra for a long term.”

I’m not sure if this is Henson setting up his opening position in the blame game that will erupt in July, or a genuine OSM (Oh Sh*t Moment), in which he suddenly realizes that locking the orchestra out to avoid having to sell tickets to a venue to which no one wanted to go had a flip side – namely that the musicians, having endured a year of economic agony, might be fired up enough, and angry enough, to wait just a little longer and use the re-opening of Orchestra Hall as a pressure point against management. Henson will only have himself to blame if that happens, of course – but rest assured that he will move heaven and earth to shift that blame – respectfully, of course – to the musicians and their union.

No doubt the public will be told that the musicians are depriving the community of the great orchestra that Minnesotans are paying for. If anyone points out that’s already been happening for a year because the musicians were locked out, the response will be that the lockout was a cunning plot by the musicians to be able to blackmail management into unsustainable raises smaller concessions than management has been demanding. Shame on those greedy, lazy musicians, sitting home and eating catfood for a year so that they can harsh the management mellow in July.

Drew McManus suggested yesterday that the parties bring in the big guns in the form of Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service director George Cohen:

…the MOA debacle is anything but typical and getting both sides talking has little hope for success unless some of the key variables contain change.

And since neither side can demand the other change representatives, it would be worthwhile to swap out the existing federal mediator with George H. Cohen, the current director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS), the department that oversees federal mediation in labor negotiations.

Cohen has been an integral mediator in classical music labor disputes before, including helping the Metropolitan Opera and its orchestra musicians avoid a work stoppage a few years ago when prior to his involvement, it seemed like forgone conclusion.

Introducing the Cohen variable could be enough to shake things lose or, at the very least, demonstrate that some stakeholders have been bargaining in anything but good faith. As a result, that exposure could hasten developments resulting in turnover among key leadership positions, thereby hastening a mutually satisfying resolution.

While an interesting idea, it is not without flaws. George Cohen is not one of them, though. I had the great privilege of working with George on several national media negotiations, and I doubt there’s a better union-side negotiator on the planet. His appointment by President Obama to run the FMCS was only marginally less brilliant than appointing him to the National Labor Relations Board would have been.

But there is, no doubt, an internal protocol on what negotiations are handled by the FMCS regional offices and which by the director, and I suspect that such protocols might make it difficult for Cohen to agree to mediate this dispute.

A more significant issue is that even the best mediator can’t make bricks out of straw (in this case, much-chewed and recycled straw). Mediation presupposes that the parties want a settlement and are willing, at some level, to actually negotiate. Minnesota Orchestra management has said quite explicitly throughout this dispute that their demands for cuts in orchestra compensation are non-negotiable; the only thing they’re willing to negotiate is what cuts go into what sub-category of orchestra compensation. Not much basis for mediation there, which no doubt is why the current FMCS mediator has had so little success.

I suspect that it would take George not much more than a few breaths to figure out that “some stakeholders have been bargaining in anything but good faith” (if he hasn’t already heard that from the FMCS mediator on the ground). What good that does the musicians, or the negotiating process, is unclear. Mediators, especially those working for the FMCS, often deal with people not negotiating in good faith. Their ability to do anything about it is severely limited by the fact that they are not arbitrators or judges, but mediators. They are fundamentally dependent on both sides believing that they are neutral brokers in order be effective as mediators. That’s why they almost never say anything in public. I simply can’t see how bringing Cohen in to mediate could lead to “turnover among key leadership positions,” as desirable as that would be.

In the meantime, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, long-time Minnesota Orchestra music director emeritus, has agreed to conduct yet another concert in April; this one with Mozart and the Bruckner fourth symphony, which, when he did it here in Milwaukee, was a memorable event. The “little list” maintained by the Minnesota Orchestra management simply gets longer and longer, doesn’t it?

On the other side of the Mississippi (where radio station call signs begin with “W” and not “K”), the musicians of the SPCO held a vote that was something short of a ratification vote on a proposal that had been brokered by St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman:

Musicians at the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra on Monday rejected a deal that had been brokered in the office of Mayor Chris Coleman. The union said concerns about job security and contingencies placed on guaranteed pay were to blame for the plan’s failure. The vote, however, is not a formal ratification procedure and is not binding. The vote count was not released.

“We’re obviously disappointed with the results and we’ll have to regroup,” said Jessica Etten, an SPCO spokeswoman.

Carole Mason Smith, head of the musicians’ negotiating team, called the vote a “litmus test” on the mood of the players. The union actually has made a counterproposal to management that largely contains the same economic package: a $60,000 annual base salary, a special retirement package, a guarantee on overscale payments and a 28-member orchestra. However, Mason Smith cited other complications in procedures that contributed to the rejection.

Coleman had requested the musicians vote on the deal, but a hangup occurred when the national American Federation of Musicians argued that it alone was authorized to negotiate terms on the national distribution of electronic media. It would not allow musicians to vote on the management proposal.

In that spirit, Mason Smith said musicians made this vote nonbinding — to satisfy the national union and to satisfy the mayor’s request for a vote. The national union contends that until that issue is settled, SPCO musicians cannot ratify a new contract. The SPCO board has said a new deal must be reached by April 8 in order to save a remnant of the current season.

While this is all a little confusing, it sounds as if the parties are actually not that far apart – which doesn’t mean that bridging the gap will necessarily happen any time soon, much less by April 8.

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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