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Minnesota nasty

0 Robert Levine

Minnesotans are known for being averse to conflict, generous to arts and educational groups of all kinds, and generally plain-spoken (unless, of course, such speaking would lead to conflict). So, on top of the ongoing Minnesota Orchestra lock-out, this comes as a shock, even if not a surprise:

The Twin Cities’ distinctive status in the world of classical music took a turn toward dubious Sunday.

As of 6 p.m., members of both world-class orchestras that call Minnesota home were locked out of their concert halls in contract disputes.

Union players at the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra did not vote on an offer from management, and the board of directors shut the doors and canceled concerts through Nov. 4. In a lockout, players may not report for work and they receive no pay.

Musicians at the Minnesota Orchestra were locked out Oct. 1 after the union unanimously voted to reject what management had characterized as its final offer. So for the first time since the SPCO launched in 1959, neither orchestra will be playing for at least the next two weeks.

“After 10 months of negotiations, the Union and the Society agree that the SPCO faces a significant financial challenge, but the Union continues to reject that a significant reduction in the cost of the contract must be part of the solution,” said SPCO President Dobson West in an e-mail statement Sunday night. “As a result, we are not close to an agreement.”

…”We’re very disappointed and very perplexed that management has decided to take this step,” said Carole Mason Smith, head of the musicians’ negotiating committee, on Sunday night. “We made offers to continue to talk and play that were rejected and we’re sorry the community has to suffer like this.”

There were some… oddities about the way the SPCO board handled the lockout as well:

After the last bargaining session, on Oct. 12, management indicated it wanted a vote on its final offer. Last week, it notified players that they would be locked out if they did not agree to the terms by Sunday.

That prompted a letter to West from Brad Eggen, president of the Twin Cities Musicians Union. Eggen’s letter said the earliest the players could vote on the proposal was Oct. 31, and was contingent on the union receiving answers to several information requests.

Smith said the reason for the delay was that many players are out of town because this was a scheduled dark weekend.

“They [management] knew that, but they went ahead and made the deadline,” Smith said. “We have people playing in Europe, New York, Chicago, Detroit. They took work because they knew we would have this week off.”

From looking at the SPCO online calendar, it appears as if the Board was acting even more badly than that. It seems that the only work on the weekend of October 12 was chamber music. It certainly raises a legitimate question of whether or not the board was acting in good faith by trying to force the orchestra to vote during a period when many of them weren’t required to be in town.

Once upon a time (and it wasn’t very long ago), the idea that the boards of both Twin Cities orchestras could be behaving like this would have been beyond anyone’s imagination. In a way, what I find most shocking is that neither board even tried to set things up so that the musicians would strike and thus avoid the blame for cancelling concerts. Even Detroit, a bare two years ago, felt it important that the blame for the work stoppage could be plausibly put on the musicians’ shoulders, although clearly the musicians had no realistic alternative to striking over management’s implementation of their final offer. Has the climate become so accepting of management power that what was considered beyond the pale two years ago is now simply another tool in management’s arsenal?

Absent outside pressure, it’s hard to see either of these lockouts ending soon. Perhaps a major East Coast newspaper that doesn’t have either “Post” or “Journal” in its name might do a story about this that could shake things up; Minnesotans are sensitive to being thought rubes by Gothamites. But I don’t see how either orchestra comes out of this well.

The SPCO was the wonder of the orchestral world in the early part of the last decade as a result of a radical new internal decision-making structure that involved the musicians in areas previously reserved for management and music directors. That too is going to be a casualty of this negotiation, and not just in St. Paul; this experience will be cited ad nauseum by hard-liners whenever any management of any American orchestra proposes greater musician power in decision-making (as, of course, often happens during concessionary bargaining). And the hard-liners will be right to do so.

I will always miss Fred Zenone and his wisdom and friendship, but I’m glad he didn’t have to see his work in St. Paul vandalized like this.

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