Armistice Day on the Northern Front

There’s been what intelligence analysts call “chatter” for a few weeks about a settlement in Minnesota being close. I heard some new chatter in the past couple of days, which led me to to set up a Google watch on the news. About twenty minutes ago, the official news came through, after some preliminary reports earlier today. Fittingly, it came from Graydon Royce at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, who has provided the kind of fair and thorough coverage that most musicians in a labor dispute can only dream about. (As I was writing this post, an updated and longer version of the article appeared, which I’ll quote instead:

A bitter lockout that silenced one of the country’s top orchestras for more than 15 months ended Tuesday when musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra approved a contract that will bring them back to the stage in early February.

Hours earlier, the orchestra board had approved the terms of a three-year deal that cuts salaries and benefits roughly 15 percent. The average salary would drop to $114,000 in the first year, from $135,000 under the expired contract. There are small salary increases in the second two years of the deal, and musicians would pay significantly more for health care.

“Both the musicians and the board made concessions on issues of importance to them,” said Richard Davis, lead negotiator on the orchestra board.

“Musicians are pleased that we have come to a solution with our board, and we are ready to work with them to begin the hard work that lies ahead,” said clarinetist Tim Zavadil, a musician negotiator.

Another key component of the settlement would reduce the number of full-time musicians covered by the contract to 84 by the end of the three-year deal. The old contract provided for 95 positions, and there are currently 77 in the ensemble. Seven players would be added over the life of the deal. No musician who has left the orchestra would lose their job.

Two other financial provisions would allow the orchestra to pay substitute musicians (or those added for specific performances) 90 percent of the base pay, and to provide revenue sharing if the orchestra’s endowment performs at specified levels over the life of the deal. Musicians also agreed to changes in work rules.

The board and union began negotiations in April, 2012. Six months later, musicians were locked out after rejecting a proposal that would have cut some salaries up to 40 percent. The entire 2012-13 season eventually was canceled, as well as the first five months of the current season, making it the longest work stoppage at a major American orchestra.

Sources said a new round of talks began informally in December and after several quiet sessions, the deal was struck.

The status of former music director Osmo Vänskä remains unclear. He resigned last October 1, after the two sides were unable to reach agreement. Both sides said they will deal separately with the question of whether Vänskä returns.

It is anticipated that musicians will return to work on Feb. 1, under terms of the deal. When concerts would begin, and who would lead them, has not been determined.

There are some unresolved questions about the settlement. One is simply, “why now?” One reason hinted at in the article is the nearing of the end of unemployment benefits and eligibility for group health insurance for the musicians in the next two months, although the latter matters less than it would have a year ago, of course. Another was suggested by an article in the Minnesota Post earlier today:

There are reasons… to believe the lockout could be reaching an end.

Political pressure, especially from the city of Minneapolis, which is involved in a complex lease arrangement with the MOA, could ratchet up significantly later this week. Under terms of the lease, a key deadline arrives Thursday.

That deadline requires the city’s Community Planning and Economic Development Department to give a thumbs up or down on whether the MOA has fulfilled — and will fulfill — its public obligations required when the MOA received state bonding money for the remodeling of Orchestra Hall.

A “thumbs up” on the MOA report would mean Community Planning would be, more or less, a  rubber-stamp process in which the city would approve the MOA’s operation and file a report with the state that would allow the MOA to continue business as usual.

But a “thumbs down” on the MOA’s report would mean the Community Planning Department would send a report to the city council and the state. That could begin the process of terminating the MOA’s lease. (Depending on whom you talk to, lease termination could prove costly and complex for the city — or not.)

Members of one organization, Save Our Symphony Minnesota, have sent a letter to the city attorney arguing that the MOA is in breach of its lease.

Certainly, political pressure could be a bigger factor than it has been throughout the lockout.

The fact that the settlement was substantially better than management’s offer of last summer suggests that the board was feeling significant pressure to settle, for whatever reason. I suspect the fact that they spent over $13 million last season without producing a single concert did them a lot of damage with donors and politicians both, and produced a lot of external momentum to avoid another year of the same.

A far more important question is what happens with the leadership of the orchestra, and in particular whether Michael Henson leaves and Osmo Vänskä returns. It’s been clear for a long time that a major dynamic behind the length of this dispute was the complete breakdown of the relationship between institutional leadership and the orchestra. The two board members in charge, Jon Campbell and Richard Davis, are not permanent fixtures; in fact, it was announced at the December board meeting that both would be stepping down when a settlement was reached:

Significantly for the course of labor negotiations, the board re-elected Campbell as chairman. Richard Davis remains as immediate past chairman. Those two — who have spearheaded the board’s efforts to secure pay cuts from musicians — will remain in office until a settlement is reached. They then will step down and new leaders will be elected, spokeswoman Gwen Pappas said.

That leaves Henson. My guess – completely unsupported by the facts – is that Henson is toast, although when he’ll pop out of the toaster is TBA. I suspect that Campbell – and the fact that boards always circle the wagons in a labor dispute – was why he’d survived this long. His departure is not something the musicians could legally make a condition of the settlement, but there are ways around that for a determined bargaining unit with a good attorney, which they are.  The rebuilding of relationships – within the institution and between the institution and key external players – is going to be Job One starting tomorrow. Henson simply has too much baggage to be credible in that role, even (I suspect) for his supporters. And his future looks especially bleak if the board, or at least whoever’s calling the shots at this point, wants Vänskä to return. It’s really hard to imagine him returning if Henson stays – their fundamental visions of the role of the orchestra, and the music director, in the life of the Minnesota Orchestral Association are at opposite poles.

So I’d like to think it’s a good day for the orchestra world. I’m sorry the musicians took a pay cut – they certainly didn’t deserve to. And I’m sorry the contract included additional cuts in pay for subs and extras – that’s a popular management demand that is almost never fair, although it’s understandable that musicians agree to it in situations where the full-time musicians are taking a big hit (which they are; in addition to the pay cuts, there are also what appear to be significantly higher health care costs for them). The reduction in orchestra complement is not great news either, although it’s more of a nominal reduction than a real one, given that the actual number of musicians on staff is slated to increase by 7. But no settlement is perfect. Just the fact that it puts a great orchestra back on stage is wonderful news. If it also leads to a change of course by the board, then it will be good news for the orchestra’s future as well.

Update (11:59 PM, January 14, 2014) – It took me way too long to figure out that the most important pressure point on management might have been the fact that, absent any settlement soon, not only could they not get a season ticket campaign for next season started, but that many of the artists they’d booked for next season wouldn’t hold the dates any longer and consequently any plans they had for next season would be torpedoed by a further delay in getting an agreement. We had a similar dynamic here in Milwaukee in 1994; what finally convinced our management to settle was the fact that they couldn’t credibly sell season tickets for the following year if the public was aware we might repeat our 3-day work stoppage, which happened at almost exactly this date in 1994. Of course, that begs the question of why the same logic didn’t seem to matter last season to MinnOrch leadership. Perhaps, after one completely dark season, no one was going to believe management’s assurances that the situation was under control, as enough people likely did last year at this time.




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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