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Red line in Minnesota gets redder

0 Robert Levine

I promise that some day I will post on something other than the Minnesota Orchestra labor dispute. But, at the moment, it’s the most important thing happening in our field.

The news yesterday from the Northern Front was not encouraging. The first item was that Minnesota Orchestra management has apparently set a kind of deadline for when an agreement must be reached with musicians in order to meet the deadline set by MO music director Osmo Vänskä for when the orchestra must begin rehearsal for the upcoming Carnegie concerts, the cancellation of which would cause him to leave:

An endangered Carnegie Hall appearance is applying fresh pressure to the Minnesota Orchestra’s lingering labor dispute.

Music director Osmo Vänskä has said the orchestra must be in rehearsal by Sept. 30 to be ready for the early November concerts. To make that happen, orchestra management said Wednesday that it would need to reach agreement with its union musicians by Sept. 15.

The concerts became entangled with Vänskä’s fate when he said in an April 30 letter that he would resign if Carnegie canceled the concerts because of the labor lockout. Vänskä has said nothing about his plans since that letter, and management did not indicate Wednesday whether Vänskä remains committed to resigning if the concerts are imperiled.

“Osmo is the only person who can answer that question,” CEO and President Michael Henson said.

Of course, Henson could tell us what Vänskä has told him since April. But that would make management seem less like hapless bystanders - an odd PR approach, but understandable in light of the alternative. It’s also odd that Henson is unwilling to take Vänskä at his word; the April 30th letter did not seem ambiguous to me.

More interesting is the September 15th date. Most orchestras faced with work stoppages have found it entirely possible to reach a settlement on Monday and have a rehearsal on Tuesday. Why MO management would need two weeks is not made clear - are the keys to the stage in a lockbox somewhere in the the African jungle not served by FedEx?

But most interesting is the simple fact of the announcement. Why make it at all? The press is understandably confused even about Vänskä’s deadline.  Graydon Royce of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, who has done the best professional reporting on this story, wrote yesterday morning that:

Gov. Mark Dayton, talking about the Minnesota Orchestra situation out at the State Fair the other day, also mentioned Sept. 9 as the big day. Blogs, print, radio, telegraph, Facebook, Weekly Reader – every media outlet you can think of (including ours) has been citing Sept. 9 as the lynchpin of this high-stakes standoff between the orchestra board and its musicians.

Here’s the thing: Vanska never said he was quitting on Sept. 9.

When the news came down recently that the BIS recording sessions had been canceled for this fall, we went back to Vanska’s original April 30 letter to the board chair (Jon Campbell) and the president/CEO (Michael Henson).

It was a carefully crafted document in which Vänskä said he wanted the orchestra back last May, or at least by early September – “at the latest 9 September 2019.”

But that date had more to do with Vänskä’s feeling that the orchestra needed to be back by that date in order to get ready for the recording sessions. Now that those sessions have been canceled, whatever leverage there was in the date of Sept. 9 seems irrelevant.

The more explicit trigger for Vänskä will be the two Carnegie Hall concerts scheduled for Nov. 2-3. The letter does state this:

“The Carnegie Hall project represents for me one of the most significant goals of my entire Minnesota Orchestra tenure. I wish to do everything possible to ensure those concerts go ahead. But at this time I must make it clear, that in the case Carnegie Hall chooses to cancel the Minnesota Orchestra’s concerts this November, i.e. if they lose confidence in our ability to perform those concerts as a result of the extended lockout, then I will be forced to resign my position as Music Director.”

Vanska mentions no date – only that if Carnegie cancels, then he would pack up and go. Carnegie, however, has let interested parties know that it does not want to be seen as forcing a decision by Vanska that could have him leaving Minnesota.

Another datapoint is the press release by the Minnesota Orchestra, which does not, as best I can determine, have a release ate attached to it, but apparently went up yesterday:

Amidst the complexities of the Minnesota Orchestra’s ongoing labor dispute, Minnesota Orchestra Music Director Osmo Vänskä said today that in order to allow appropriate preparation time for the Orchestra’s Carnegie Hall performances on November 2 and 3, the Orchestra musicians will need to be in rehearsal the week of September 30.

To facilitate that timeline, the Minnesota Orchestra management and musicians will need to reach a contract agreement by Sunday, September 15, according to management, in order to give musicians appropriate notice to return to work by the end of the month.

Carnegie Hall management is in full agreement with the timeframe as set out above.

So apparently they know where the key is; the hang-up is that it takes 2 weeks to notify 80 or so people of a rehearsal. Strange, given that FedEx definitely does deliver in the Twin Cities. But the important point is that Vänskä has told the management - if we believe them - that his deadline is September 30, and not the 15th.

But wait - there’s more! Today came another announcement from the Minnesota Orchestra management:

Minnesota Orchestra management today released a new proposal to its musicians. Approved yesterday by the orchestra’s board, the revised offer would lift the lockout that has been in place since last October. Musicians would return  to work on Sept. 30 and would “play and talk” while earning the same pay as before the lockout over a period lasting two months.

If no agreement is reached within the two-month period, a 24-month contract would go into effect that would pay the musicians an annual average salary of $102,200. That would represent a 24 percent cut from the average annual salary of $135,000 in the musicians’ previous contract, which expired Sept. 30, 2012.

In a contract offer made last September, the board had proposed an average salary of $89,000.

With benefits, the average total compensation will be $135,000, according to a release issued Thursday afternoon.

The new offer also changes overscale pay, reducing it by a 25 percent across the board, versus a range of 22 percent to 40 percent in the previous proposal. Benefit and vacation packages remain the same in the two proposals.

Under the terms of this revised two-year proposal, the Minnesota Orchestra would accrue a deficit of $2.2 million over the course of the contract. “Our aim was to eliminate our deficit entirely,” said Board Chair Jon Campbell, “but the board has put forward this compromise in the hopes of getting musicians back on the stage and audiences back in Orchestra Hall in time to launch a new season.”

The orchestra requested that the Musicians Bargaining Committee present the new terms to the musicians for a vote by Sept. 9.

I doubt very much that the musicians will accept this iteration as it stands, but it does represent real movement. The reason the musicians won’t accept it is that there’s no incentive for management to bargain during that two-month period; obviously the musicians aren’t going to bargain for less money and management won’t bargain for more, as they get the cut regardless. (I think they tried this structure in a previous offer, but with different numbers, and the musicians refused that.) But it represeents movement because the result of that “negotiation” would be, even in the worst case for the musicians, a smaller cut than management has insisted on for the 15 months or so. Just why they’re making this movement is something only they know, but I’d guess it’s a combination of knowing that their position is not working and seeing Vänskä’s deadline - and its potential consequences -  loom larger and larger in the windshield

What can be said is that this may mark the beginning of real bargaining, and real bargaining is the only thing that will bring an orchestra resembling the Minnesota Orchestra of 2011-12  back on stage with its music director.

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