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Board’s take-it-or-leave-it offer sets troubling tone for Orchestra’s future

MinnPost photo by Corey Anderson
On the surface, the Orchestra Board’s offer seems more like another ultimatum than a genuine effort at resolution.

The Minnesota Orchestra board has made a move that will reverberate — for better or worse – into the future.

Faced with negotiating crunch time, the board seemingly ignored a confidential mediation process and came out with an offer that’s loaded with positive public-relations strokes for the board but may only be seen as insult to locked-out musicians.

As usual, it’s hard to get a sense of what the other players on both sides think of Thursday’s surprising contract offer. Other than officially designated talkers, most members of the board and the orchestra have stayed silently on the sideline. Update: On Saturday the musicians rejected the new offer.

But on the surface, the Orchestra Board’s offer seems more like another ultimatum than a genuine effort at resolution. After all, if this were a sincere effort to settle, why wouldn’t the board have made the offer through Mitchell’s mediation office instead of sending news releases to newspapers, television and radio stations? 

‘Time is running out’

“We are offended that they unilaterally left the mediators’ confidential process,’’ said musicians’ spokesman Blois Olson. “The musicians will continue to work through the mediator.’’

In the news release produced by the Orchestra board, Richard Davis, the chairman of the board’s negotiating committee, didn’t mention the mediator.

“We are offering it publicly because this is truly an offer from our community,” Davis said in the statement. “We are offering it today because time is running out.”

 That part – time is running out – seems to be true. Although deadlines can change, Sept. 30 has loomed large in this dispute for some time. Conducter Osmo Vanska has said that his orchestra must be able to begin practicing by Sept. 30 if it is to be ready for November dates in New York’s Carnegie Hall. If there hasn’t been a settlement by then, Vanska indicated he might be out the door.

 At a time when there have been hints of negotiation and movement, this offer does have a feel of finality to it.   

Foundations’ one-time bridge grant

For weeks, there have been hints that at least a handful of board members have been trying to reach out to musicians as well as the region’s biggest gift-givers to end the lockout. Marilyn Carlson Nelson was believed to be the leader of that group of board members. (Others in that small group asked not be quoted for this story.)  

But Thursday’s offer makes it clear that Carlson Nelson is again a board insider – and perhaps never was working on the outside.

According to a news release from the Orchestra Association, Carlson Nelson, through the Carlson Family Foundation, did convene a meeting of 15 Minnesota foundations and those organizations came up with a “one-time bridge grant to enable a resolution in the long dispute.’’

Board Chair Richard Davis
REUTERS/Mike SegarBoard Chair Richard Davis

Carlson Nelson, who could not be reached for comment, was quoted in the Orchestra board’s news release as if a great step had been taken toward resolution.

“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,” she was quoted as saying. 

 From the musicians’ viewpoint, the problem is that the grant – the amount was not disclosed – still means musicians would be expected to take salary cuts that would amount to more than 17 percent over the life of the three-year contract. The musicians would receive a one-time bonus of $20,000 to soften the blow of the cut.

 It should be noted that the Orchestra board is saying that its offer means the board would not be able to eliminate the orchestra’s $6 million annual deficit. Instead, smaller cuts to musician salaries – at one time, the board was seeking 32 per cent salary cuts – would be about $3.6 million over three years, even with the bridge money, according to Jon Campbell, the board chairman.

‘Flak jackets’ for Campbell, Davis

Campbell and  Davis, the negotiating chairman, have taken heavy flak from supporters of the musicians. This newest offer seems, in part, to be a flak jacket for the two. Campbell is an executive vice president of Wells Fargo Bank, and Davis is the CEO of U.S. Bancorp. Foundations from those two banks were cited for coming up with funds for the bridge funding.

But this wasn’t just the big bank foundations chipping in, according to the Orchestra Board’s release. There were 13 other foundations AND and an organization of orchestra fans called SOS-Save Osmo. That group has seemed to have been empathetic to the musicians.

The participation of SOS-Save Osmo surprised at least one member of that organization. The contract proposal doesn’t meet the criteria originally outlined by the group, said Lee Halker, an SOS member. He was sending out emails this morning, seeking answers to questions he has about the SOS role in the new proposal.

If the offer was intended to isolate orchestra members ever further from the community, it perhaps will succeed. The board proudly proclaims orchestra members will receive an “average’’ annual salary of $104,500.

Average, of course, is a misleading figure. Salaries in the orchestra would actually range from $89,000 to $150,500. Beyond that, acceptance of this contract would likely knock the Minnesota Orchestra out of the top 10 in terms of wages paid to musicians. That may not be a big thing to most working people, but it matters if you’re trying to promote yourself as one of the nation’s best orchestras.

What’s not at all clear are the small-print details so important to most contracts.

But with trumpets blaring, leaders of the orchestra’s board are saying that union leaders should offer the proposal for a “secret ballot” before noon Monday, when the offer apparently will be pulled back.

It’s that big, public take-it-or-leave it tone that seems most troublesome for the future of the orchestra. Ultimately, an orchestra and its patrons must be unified to succeed. Even if the offer were to be accepted by a majority of the musicians, it would be divisive far into the future.

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Comments (27)

  1. Submitted by Amy Adams on 09/27/2013 - 10:48 am.

    Yes, “average” is misleading…so is “range.”

    I believe the bottom end of that “range” referred to in this article is a Baseline salary. That’s significant for understanding the deep cuts being asked for.
    Discussion of the MOA’s so-called offers has focused largely on salary amounts, but I believe there were over 200 red-line changes to the workplace rules in their contract.

    So…what happened to those? Were they just a negotiating tool? Is seniority out, and has the service area doubled in size? Who has ultimate control over hiring new musicians?

  2. Submitted by Mike Downing on 09/27/2013 - 11:01 am.

    Other options for a headline:

    Your headline was “Board’s take-it-or-leave-it offer sets troubling tone for Orchestra’s future”. It could have easily be changed to “Costs exceeding income sets troubling tone for Orchestra’s future”.

    Bankruptcy occurs whenever costs exceed income. One always has a choice of decreasing costs or increasing income to avoid bankruptcy. Will the patrons of the Orchestra increase the income to the Orchestra or will the costs be decreased. That is the only relevant question.

    • Submitted by Sarah Nagle on 09/27/2013 - 03:36 pm.

      mgmt doesn’t want income increased

      They have actively discouraged contributions and renewals, esp. from smaller donors. They basically do no proactive marketing. They were not honest with us all during the past several years when we could have made contributions. They love having a moving-target deficit to throw around so that they can blame it on the greedy musicians. What business would trash both its product and its customers?

    • Submitted by Sean Fahey on 09/27/2013 - 03:42 pm.

      But plenty of income for a capital campaign…

      People donated to the capital campaign while the board kept quiet about the deficit in the operating budget.

  3. Submitted by Elizabeth Erickson on 09/27/2013 - 11:08 am.

    Minnesota Orchestra

    Thank you Doug for such an informative article. It is so refreshing to hear an independent voice that is not acting like a parrot. I recently became a supporting member of MNpost largely due to your evenhanded approach to covering the Minnesota Orchestra lock out. The management and board need to be held accountable for their outrageously unethical behavior. No one disputes that the orchestra is in some financial trouble. But we, the public, as well as the musicians, have yet to see actual hard numbers that support ANY of their assertions. What is out there for all to see, is the arrogant and dismissive attitude this management and board have shown our world class musicians and supportive patrons. This needs to stop if we are to have any kind of orchestra left after these banksters get finished with things.

  4. Submitted by Richard O'Neil on 09/27/2013 - 11:23 am.

    “…it would be divisive far into the future.”

    The reality here is that this community is not willing (for whatever reason) to compensate the musicians at the level they believe is justified (whatever that means). In the private sector, the employee/performer walks.

    • Submitted by Amy Adams on 09/27/2013 - 12:41 pm.

      Sorry, not buying it.

      Emily Hogstad used a beautifully apt quote about the formation of the Minnesota Orchestra at the rally last week:
      “This is a public institution, and we are the public. The public is the entity the Minneapolis Symphony was founded for in 1903. In the words of historian John K. Sherman in 1957: ‘Minneapolis at last wanted something that no one man or organization could afford. It wanted something that could no more pay for itself or show a profit than could a public library or an art museum. So the device of the guaranty fund, a citizens’ subsidy, was adopted, amounting in essence to a self-imposed tax by people who were public-spirited and also wealthy enough to pay the assessment. Minneapolis would maintain its proudest cultural institution through deficit financing, but to the canny it constituted a civic advertisement well worth the cost.’ ”

      This board is not the entire community…it’s just a few of its wealthy representatives. They should not be alone in deciding the fate of this great organization.

  5. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 09/27/2013 - 11:37 am.


    So if I read the article right this was more of an attack than an offer and the correct response is to be “offended”. I don’t much care for Davis, etc but the response seems awfully whiny to me. Down here in the real world we have bosses and workers and if you don’t like the way your boss talks to you, take a hike. I’d like to see counter proposals by the musicians that publically address all the workplace rules and pay problems that they are so upset with. Did someone fail to remove the brown m&ms from their candy dishes in the dressing room?

    • Submitted by Sarah Nagle on 09/27/2013 - 03:37 pm.

      The musicians are trying to respect the mediation process

      and not do an end-run around it by going public. How do you know that any counterproposals, or negotiations, haven’t included work rules?

  6. Submitted by Michael Wunsch on 09/27/2013 - 11:38 am.

    Nothing more than manipulative PR

    Excellent article; this proposal is nothing more than a manipulative public relations ploy. The inclusion of the SOS-Save Osmo group is disingenuous; I pledged support as a part of the SOS campaign, and I don’t see how this proposal meets the requirements established by SOS-Save Osmo for activating those pledges. I certainly would not want to make donations to the orchestra under this framework.

    This situation will only be resolved when all stakeholders – patrons, donors (including small and medium size donors), and musicians – are given a voice. Even if the musicians were to accept this contract proposal (which is extremely unlikely), the orchestra will fail: Musicians will continue to flee due to the toxic work environment, disenfranchsied small and medium donors such as myself will continue to withhold donations, and angry patrons will be hard to win back. Healing will require involving all parties in finding a solution.

  7. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 09/27/2013 - 12:21 pm.

    The offer

    What struck me about the offer was how utterly beside the point it was. The solution to the orchestra’s problem isn’t an injection of one time money, it’s finding new and continuing revenue sources.That at this late date, that the board doesn’t realize this is perhaps the most shocking development we have seen in this dispute at least in the last week or two.

  8. Submitted by Arthur Horowitz on 09/27/2013 - 12:39 pm.

    Same old offer

    Although musicians have to eat, I doubt they will accept the same old tune with slightly different words. If the musicians did accept, this would mean in addition to a three year net reduction in wages of 17.7%, the next round of negotiations would start at 25% less then their previous contract called for. There will be more defections to other orchestras, and OUR orchestra will be relegated to the ranks of the also rans. Perhaps if more members of the board attended more of the concerts, they would realize that the Minnesota Orchestra was worthy of perpetuation in its top flight status, rather than just an object that they had to maintain as if was their civic duty.

    It is laudable that Mr. Henson was willing to take a 25% reduction in salary as well, however, is he willing to give back last years salary as the locked out musicians did. Are Misters Davis and Campbell willing to surrender last years wages as well? They could afford that a lot better than the musicians.

  9. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 09/27/2013 - 01:53 pm.

    Passive aggressive move

    This is the ultimate in what outsiders view as “Minnesota Nice.” While I know that a REAL Minnesota Nice exists, this is a passive aggressive move made to look generous and “nice,” when in fact it is just the opposite. I get the emails that the Board sends out and, as a patron, *I* am insulted by them. I have come to the conclusion that, regardless of the resolution, I likely will not ever donate again as long as the Board is composed as it is. I don’t see any real effort in fixing the mess, but rather simply laying the burden on the musicians. Will the musicians ultimately need a paycut? I don’t know. But without looking for any additional funding sources and being more responsible with their funds (the MOA had NO business raising money for building improvements when they knew that the overall finances were shaky), the Orchestra is destined to go extinct, anyway. I wonder how many people have pulled their donation to the building fund back?

  10. Submitted by Michael P. Johnson on 09/27/2013 - 02:26 pm.

    Leave It

    I think it’s pretty clear at this point that expenses need to be reduced (i.e. salaries need to be cut). If anyone thought the Board was being disingenuous, they now know the orchestra just isn’t viable with the musicians demands. If the Board could make the orchestra work under the musicians’ plan, why wouldn’t they just accept it. The simple truth is the musicians’ plan (or lack thereof) will not work. This extensive of a holdout by the musicians just doesn’t make sense. They should have accepted the Board’s plan after a short lockout and during the next bargaining session (presumably in a better economy) made their demands. Maybe this will be a lesson to the musicians – take what you can get and be happy playing a instrument for a living. When the orchestra is dried up, none of the musicians will be making money (interesting thought!).

    • Submitted by Amy Adams on 09/27/2013 - 02:39 pm.

      Pretty clear?

      It’s so very strange how those of a similar opinion such as yourself claim this is all about the musicians’ agressive and uncalled-for “demands”. There is NO clarity of any kind when it comes to the MOA’s finances. In fact, the closer you look…the more it looks like MOA is purposefully sabotaging their own efforts. (Removing seats in the hall! Insulting powerful patrons! Even losing the sponsorship of really important corporations.)
      I guess you can keep on blaming the musicians, you probably will. But this albatross really hangs around the neck of Michael Henson, CEO.

      • Submitted by Arthur Horowitz on 09/27/2013 - 03:39 pm.

        In defense of Michael Henson

        Mr. Henson reflects the opinions and requirements of his employer, the Minnesota Orchestral Association Board. Unfortunately, the board appears to be controlled by Minnesota’s own version of the Koch brothers AKA the “Banksters”–you know who they are! You might assume consequently that Mr. Henson may be Minnesota’s own version of Scott Walker. But giving Mr. Henson the benefit of the doubt I believe his tune would be a lot different if his employer’s tune were changed. Regrettably, the Board appears intent on playing “Stop the Music” if it can’t make the musicians pay for its ineptitude.

  11. Submitted by Sarah Nagle on 09/27/2013 - 03:39 pm.

    As far as tone goes . . .

    the Board’s FIRST offer was basically take-it-or-leave-it. That has set the tone for over the past year. This is just more of same, albeit more public.

  12. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 09/27/2013 - 04:31 pm.


    Personally, I have never doubted the good faith of management nor their the accuracy of their assessment that things can not go on as they have been. My problem with management is that they have been unable to find the revenue necessary to sustain a first class orchestra in the past, and don’t have skills to do that in the future. The rather startling offer of a one time payment, so completely unresponsive to the revenue needs of the orchestra, only confirm me in that belief.

  13. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/27/2013 - 07:06 pm.

    If all you want

    is someone playing the right notes on their fiddle,
    Minnesota has a quite competent Youth Symphony.
    If you want music played as well as it can, then you want to hire top professionals.
    Eventually, when the MSO has been reduced to a Youth Symphony, people will simply download performances from the top groups, and the MSO will be history,
    Then the MSO board members, who don’t get most of their income from the MSO, will simply go on to gutting some other organization that thinks that because you’re rich you’re competent (and honorable).

  14. Submitted by James Hamilton on 09/27/2013 - 07:28 pm.

    Perhaps we could settle

    for simply being an above average orchestra?

    I know that’s heresy, but if the audience isn’t there to pay what it costs to shop at Daytons, perhaps we need Target tastes.

  15. Submitted by Lee Henderson on 09/27/2013 - 08:38 pm.

    Are the Musicians EVER going to make a counter offer?

    In the words of one Strib commenter: “If these musicians are as good as they say, they shouldn’t have a problem finding a new employer willing to pay what they want. Free enterprise, it’s what makes America great.” Right?

    The board has made multiple offers, and the musicians have (unfortunately) spent all of their time and resources letting their spokesperson [did you all google him?] spin a web of lies instead of offering a counter proposal of ANY kind…

    Good luck — SPCO must be doing booming business.

    • Submitted by Sarah Nagle on 09/29/2013 - 06:14 pm.

      Multiple offers?

      The first was a scorched-earth, take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum. The second and third were essentially the same. The Board then turned down the agreement of both the mediator and the musicians (who would have given up a considerable amount had it gone into effect). This last one is a last-minute attempt to mend their atrocious reputation in the community and throw some simplistic sound bites into the mix.

      As for the SPCO – well, you’ve seen what happens when a Board runs amuck.

  16. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 09/28/2013 - 06:26 am.

    The Vikings

    The audience wasn’t there to keep the Vikings financially viable either. So the city and the state stepped in and wrote them a really huge check. Unlike the Vikings, and unlike Target, the Minnesota is not a profit making institution. Unlike with the Vikings, any money we give to the orchestra is not shipped out of state to billionaire owners and millionaire players. The orchestra isn’t on tv weekly, the orchestra doesn’t hav 20% of the local media devoted to it in de facto free advertising, but if someone did a study of the kind the Vikings could afford, I bet you would find that player for player, employee for employee, audience member for audience member, the Minnesota Orchestra contributes just as much if not more than the sports teams to the economy at far less cost.

    The decision to keep the Vikings was a choice we made, and we said yes. Why shouldn’t we make the choice to keep a first class orchestra, which is an community asset we can retain at a far lower price?

  17. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 09/29/2013 - 08:29 am.

    The board

    Has anyone ever thought of asking the Board to resign?

    I am sure someone has at some point. But let’s recall the function of the board is to raise money. While they haven’t been doing enough of it, it seems, to sustain a world class orchestra, getting rid of them, and as a consequence, the money do raise would be a disastrous step exactly in the wrong direction.

    I don’t have much interest in searching for villains, and the public spirited folks who serve on the board couldn’t be further from that category. They are good people who work hard to sustain the orchestra. That they have come up short in producing revenue in this wretched economy and these turbulent times shouldn’t be viewed as their fault. And if we had more of them stepping forward, the situation would get better.

  18. Submitted by Tom Suther on 09/30/2013 - 11:06 am.


    I think thisis a time for the management and board to step down. if they won’t then how do we fire them.

    They make too much money to ruin a great institution like the orchestra. If these guys in management were so good then why all the problems. They are definitley not good team players and could give a rats ___ about their patrons and customers.

  19. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 09/30/2013 - 02:47 pm.

    if they won’t then how do we

    if they won’t then how do we fire them.

    Firing the board would pretty much destroy the financing. It’s doubtful that the orchestra could survive that. The board’s basic function is to raise money.

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