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Political leaders’ unusual silence speaks volumes about the complexities of orchestra lockouts

Complicating matters is the reality that the orchestra boards include many of the biggest movers and shakers, who fund many community activities.

Minnesota Orchestra Music Director Osmo Vänskä led musicians in a Grammy Celebration concert on Feb. 1.
Photo by John Whiting

Political leaders have been the only players more silent than the members of the Twin Cities’ two great orchestras this season.

Gov. Mark Dayton has been absent from the lockouts of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Minnesota Orchestra.

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak received some cheers for bringing together the orchestra earlier this month for a performance to celebrate the orchestra’s Grammy nomination.

And St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman has met, quietly, on “a couple of occasions’’ with both sides of a labor dispute that’s gone on for more than four months.

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But there has been little use of bully pulpits to bring the lockouts to an end.

Given that the region always promotes itself as a cultural center — “we don’t have just one great orchestra, we have two!’’ — and given that DFLers pride themselves in supporting labor, the silence seems strange.

Unique factors

But this is a complex, almost soap-opera-like situation.

These are tux-wearing,  well-paid union members, who are working for nonprofit organizations.

At least some in the labor movement have a tough time getting empathetic with musicians being paid a base level of $113,000, even if these “world-class workers” are being handed a take-it-or-leave-it offer of Minnesota Orchestra management that would cut that base to $78,000.

Making matters more difficult for pols to take strong sands  is the reality that the boards of these two orchestras are made up of the region’s biggest movers and shakers. Politicians don’t go out of their way to upset such people as Jon Campbell, who is the chairman of the Minnesota Orchestra’s board of directors and executive vice president of Wells Fargo, and Richard Davis, CEO of US Bancorp, who was past chair of the orchestra board.

There’s at least two ways to looking at this desire not to offend the big cigars:

• These are the sorts of people who build stuff. Wells Fargo, for example, is reported to be contemplating building a “campus’’ in the area surrounding the new Vikings stadium.  Does the Minneapolis mayor really want to come down hard on Campbell and Orchestra management?

• Coleman, St. Paul’s mayor, has a somewhat less cynical view of why even pro-labor DFL politicians don’t play hardball with the respective orchestra boards. “These are the same people who have poured millions of their own dollars into the orchestras,” Coleman said. “They love these institutions.”

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Careful as pols have been not to offend, there have been instances where management representatives of the Minnesota Orchestra haven’t been nearly so cautious.

Earlier this month, for example, Rybak and Judy Dayton “hosted” a Minnesota Orchestra event to celebrate its nomination for a Grammy Award. Dayton, by the way, is the aunt of the governor and over the years has contributed millions of dollars to the orchestra.

This event was supposed to work as an olive branch to the two sides. Rybak described it as a night for both sides to set aside anger and celebrate music.

Michael Henson, president and CEO of the Minnesota Orchestral Association, was in no mood for olive branches.  When Rybak announced the event, Henson sent a smug note to Orchestra board members:

“Today Mayor R.T. Rybak and Judy Dayton issued an invitation to Osmo [conducter Osmo Vänskä] and the musicians to perform a concert at the Convention Center, February 1, conducted by Osmo Vänskä. … While we expected to use the Grammy nomination to maximize their arguments about the importance of art, we did not expect this.”

In the same note, Henson scoffed at Minneapolis.

“As you are all aware,” he wrote to the board members, “the City of Minneapolis does not provide any funding to the Minnesota Orchestra.”

Minneapolis helped lobby for orchestra

There are no checks sent from City Hall to Orchestra Hall. But the city worked mightily  to push for a $14 million state bond for the now-controversial renovation of Orchestra Hall.  Other city projects were given lower priority by the city  in an effort to help the Orchestra.

On a night to celebrate the music and forget, for a few hours, the labor woes,  neither Henson nor any key members of the board’s negotiating committee attended the concert, which received big cheers from the New York Times.

“The orchestra played like the truly great ensemble it has become,’’ wrote the Times’ James R. Oestreich.

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It appears that there is somewhat less antagonism involved in the lockout of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.

The cuts are dramatic — the base for current members would be $62,500 — but the big union rub is that new members would come in at a base of $50,000. In the union world, that’s known as an unwelcome two-tier system. Additionally, the size of the Chamber Orchestra would be cut.

Still, there  is hope that an agreement can be reached as soon as next week to at least temporarily resolve the lockout.

Carol Mason Smith, longtime oboist with the SPCO, called next week’s meeting with the the board’s negotiating committee “absolutely crucial”’ if any part of the season is going to be preserved.

But it’s not just the season that’s at risk, Mason Smith said. On Wednesday, Kyu-Young Kim, principal second violnist for the orchestra, announced that he has won a position with the New York Philharmonic and will be leaving the SPCO.  Although that’s the first loss from either orchestra, Mason Smith fears others will be departing.

“This was a destination orchestra,”’ Mason Smith said. “This was a place musicians aspired to come to.”

That means, she said, that musicians in the orchestras here are in demand elsewhere.

Perhaps because of high hopes that some sort of settlement is near, Mason Smith is very careful with her words. When asked if musicians are disappointed with the low-key role political leaders seem to have played, she was silent for a moment, then offered some praise for Coleman.

Behind the scenes

“He has been generous with his time,’’ Mason Smith said, noting that he has met with representatives of the musicians on a couple of occasions.

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Coleman says he also has met with representatives of the board’s negotiating committee.

“I have tried to stress the importance of getting this resolved,” Coleman said.

This is a more perplexing labor dispute for even deep-rooted DFLers than most disputes, Coleman said.

“It’s different than a traditional situation,’’ Coleman said, adding that this isn’t about the amount of profits or bonuses for management.

Although board members of the two bodies have been “gagged” by their negotiating committees — “don’t talk to the media” — board members, off the record, talk about how  unique this situation is.

The realities:  Neither orchestra can come close to being self-sustaining through ticket sales. In fact, ticket revenues are a small portion of the operating budgets. Corporate and individual
donations, which fell during the recession, are vital to the economic survival of the orchestras.  Given that corporate revenues are vital, it’s pretty hard for anyone to lash out at the corporate heads who write the checks.

Still, there are other backdrop issues that would make it seem that the orchestra boards are simply playing contemporary hardball with the unions.

For instance, it’s hard not to smell collusion in what’s going on in this dispute.

Not only did the boards of both orchestras decide to go hardball on contracts in the same year, they’re using the same law firm, Felhaber, Larson, Fenlon and Vogt. That firm, by the way, also represents American Crystal Sugar, which has locked out its employees.

Beyond that, the Minnesota Orchestra is locked out conveniently in the year that its concert hall is closed for renovation.

Those types of “coincidences”’ typically would be red meat for DFL pols.

Still, the  governor has been especially silent, although a couple of sources said that members of his administration have reached out in an effort to bring about resolution.

Members of the Minnesota House have been the most outspoken, none more than Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, who as head of the House committee overseeing state Legacy art  funds has some clout.

She’s talked to her committee about trying to direct those dollars directly to the musicians, not the organizations that usually receive the money. She’s not sure how — or even if — that’s possible.

Kahn  is perplexed about so much silence coming from Dayton’s office.

“My husband wonders why the governor doesn’t invite both sides in, lock the door and keep them locked up until they reach an agreement,” the representative said. “Guess that’s not the way things
are done anymore.”

The governor’s office did not respond to requests for comment.