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No good news from the Northern Front (with update)

0 Robert Levine

Today is what most observers are assuming is the deadline for a settlement in Minnesota that will keep Osmo Vänskä and the November Carnegie concerts in the picture. It doesn’t appear that negotiations are going well, though.

One indication of that is the management offer of last week, made with great public fanfare and certainly not as part of the mediation process:

The Minnesota Orchestra sweetened its offer to locked-out musicians Thursday, after an 11th-hour fundraising effort led by Marilyn Carlson Nelson, one of Minnesota’s wealthiest people.

The latest proposal in the bitter yearlong dispute includes a $20,000 one-time bonus to each musician, to help offset a pay cut that would reduce base salaries over three years, ending at 25 percent below current levels.

Money for the bonuses would come from the Carlson Family Foundation, 14 other Minnesota foundations and the community group SOS: Save Osmo.

“We consider this a unique offering, born of shared respect for the Orchestra and in recognition of so many Minnesotans committed to finding a solution,” Nelson said in a statement.

The board asked the musicians for a vote before the offer expires at noon Monday.

Blois Olson, a spokesman for the musicians, complained that the board had gone public with this new proposal. “We are further offended that they have again broken the confidentiality of the mediator’s process,” Olson said, referring to former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell’s offer to mediate the negotiations. “We encourage management to stop playing games and work through the mediator.”

In an interview, board negotiator Doug Kelley said the proposal was made directly to musicians and not through the mediator.

First of all, this proposal doesn’t address the fundamental concern of the musicians, which is a permanent reduction in compensation and worsening of working conditions. Secondly, making a proposal like this publicly suggests that management has lost confidence in the mediation process and is more concerned with managing their image going into what happens following Vänskä’s departure than in averting it.

To add to the gloom, today came an article with the distressing headline “Minnesota Orchestra: Negotiations planned for today.” One would think that would go without saying in a situation like this. But apparently not:

Negotiators of the board and musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra will meet Monday afternoon to see if there is a way to resolve a year-long lockout.

The session would be the first face-to-face discussion since musicians voted Saturday to reject the board’s most-recent proposal.

Spokesman Blois Olson told a morning news conference that musicians had tried “numerous channels, including the mediator, to deliver offers. At every turn the board requested we send offers before we meet.”

Management representatives claimed that Monday morning’s request for a meeting was, “The first time since the players rejected the board offer that they have sought a meeting with board negotiators,” according to spokeswoman Gwen Pappas.

Pappas said the request was received in a letter delivered at 9:40 a.m., to Richard Davis, chair of the negotiating team.

“It’s short notice, but we will see who is available for a meeting,” Pappas said.

Olson said musicians are willing to compromise on finances if the board compromises on artistic issues. He did not discuss specifics.

Management’s public positions going into the weekend don’t offer much hope either:

Henson said the musicians have never acknowledged the extent of the Orchestra’s financial difficulties. The orchestra reported a $6 million shortfall last year.

Orchestra President and CEO Michael Henson wants a longer deal.

“Our position remains that a short-term solution for a few months is not actually doing this community, the musicians or indeed the generosity those funds are given for any service,” Henson said.

Henson said the musicians have never acknowledged the extent of the Orchestra’s financial difficulties. The orchestra reported a $6 million shortfall last year.

Any new proposal, Hanson said, needs to fit within the financial limitations of the most recent management offer.

“If they want to reposition it, using the same amount of money across three years, we would be happy to discuss this,” he said. “However we have a very real financial problem. We have a deadline on the 30th of September and the musicians are fully aware of the challenges that we face.”

Henson said if musicians vote down management’s offer they need to come up with a serious counter-proposal within the next three days.

The line about “reposition[ing] it, using the same amount of money across three years,” is all too reminiscent of what management said last fall about the amount of savings being non-negotiable, with only the distribution of the savings to be discussed. And why is a deal such as George Mitchell offered over the summer (four months of discussion with some pay adjustments) unacceptable? A short-term solution is not optimum. But neither is having the orchestra be silent for even more months - not to mention losing the Carnegie dates and their music director in the bargain.

It may be that the musicians could have done some things differently than they have; no dispute like this leaves anyone blameless. But the bottom line appears to be that management remains unwilling to accept “any new proposal” that doesn’t “fit within the financial limitations of the most recent management offer.”

Update (11:45 PM CDT, September 30):

The Minnesota Orchestra board cancelled the Carnegie concerts and, in passing, also redefined “negotiating”:

The first face-to-face talks since January in the Minnesota Orchestra labor dispute ended abruptly Monday after management rejected pay proposals put forward by locked-out musicians.

Management then announced it would cancel two November concerts by the orchestra at Carnegie Hall. Music Director Osmo Vänskä has told the board that scratching the New York concerts would force him to resign.

One proposal by musicians would have cut salaries by 6.7 percent for one year. The other, a three-year offer, would have cut salaries immediately by 8 percent, and then slowly restored the cuts to 2012 levels by the third year.

We were experiencing $6 million deficits at that level,” said Michael Henson, CEO and president of the orchestra.

[Musician spokesperson Bloise] Olson said the 8 percent plan would result in $1.1 million in savings. In addition to reduced expenses from having fewer musicians and the departure of several higher-paid players during the lockout, that would bring total musician pay to the 2007 level, he said.

Henson said mediator George Mitchell was not involved in the Monday session, which he described as a presentation, not a negotiation. “We were read an offer,” he said.

Isn’t that usually where negotiations begin? As I wrote this afternoon, the Board’s bottom line remains that “management remains unwilling to accept ‘any new proposal’ that doesn’t ‘fit within the financial limitations of the most recent management offer.'”

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