It’s getting weird up there…

It is possible to say with assurance that something is happening in the Minnesota Orchestra labor war. Just what that something is, on the other hand…

Yesterday there was a flurry of activity. First there was what appeared to be a new proposal by management, with a new deadline. Then there was a statement by the musicians claiming that management had

presented an offer to the Musicians which appears to be practically identical to an offer that the Musicians unanimously rejected earlier in August…

This would appear to be the offer that Norman Lebrecht reported on July 22, but which neither side commented on.

Shortly thereafter appeared another article from Graydon Royce of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, this one clearly a result of a conversation with management:

Frustrated by leaks in what were supposed to be confidential bargaining sessions, the Minnesota Orchestra board took its case directly to the public Thursday, releasing details of a proposal to end the 11-month-long lockout of musicians.

The proposal is essentially the same as one that musicians rejected in July after it was presented through the offices of former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, the veteran negotiator brought in to help settle the dispute.

Board members have said that leaks of some of those details, and of another proposal that Mitchell brokered, put management at a disadvantage in the public-relations war with its musicians.

“We have continued to abide by confidentiality, and we have not discussed the proposals,” said orchestra CEO Michael Henson. “Today, we want to discuss them, so we have reissued the offer outside the mediation.”

Henson implied that the musicians had breached confidentiality.

“We did not leak them,” he said of the two proposals that have been disclosed.

Musicians’ spokesman Blois Olson said the proposal is “one we’ve already rejected.”

…Henson said the board is not abandoning Mitchell’s efforts.

If musicians agree to negotiate, Mitchell would be engaged in mediation, he said.

“Sen. Mitchell continues to be the mediator,” Henson said. “We are happy to negotiate directly or go through mediation, but the big picture is to find a resolution.”

So the “new” offer is not as positive a sign as I thought yesterday (although Norman Lebrecht appears to disagree, which I find counter-intuitive, although a little encouraging, given his reporting last month). Even less positive is the eruption of all of this in the press. That doesn’t mean that management’s offer couldn’t – or hasn’t – served as the basis for renewed negotiations under Mitchell’s auspices. But public accusations of bad faith won’t make those negotiations any easier.

It’s worth reiterating that the offer of “play and talk” really… isn’t. Two months of play and talk which defaults to a concessionary result proposed by management if no agreement is reached during that two months is, for all practical purposes, an agreement to accept management’s proposed concessions, although in this case with a  bonus of eight weeks of salary at the old rate – essentially management’s proposal plus a signing bonus. Management has no incentive to negotiate higher pay, and the musicians no desire to negotiate lower pay, than that which kicks in after two months. So why bother?

The real question is whether the movement from the 40% cuts proposed by management last year to the 25% cuts proposed in July is enough to begin a real negotiation. 25% is still a huge number, and may well feel every bit as draconian to the musicians as the previous proposal. Being shot by a small pistol is less devastating than being in the line of fire of an automatic rifle, but still can be every bit as fatal – even if the corpse presents less work for the mortician.


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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