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Politicians frustrated, too, as Orchestra dispute approaches do-or-die weekend

So far, political leaders have been unable to sway the two sides as the musicians and management move oh-so-close to a cliff.

Mayor R.T. Rybak said he’s ready to do anything he can to resolve the year-long lockout, but nothing can happen until "both sides are willing to think differently." In February, Rybak and Orchestra benefactor Judy Dayton hosted a special concert, ostensibly to celebrate a Grammy nomination but also to bring the two sides together..
Photo by John Whiting

The two sides in the Minnesota Orchestra dispute are moving oh-so-close to a cliff.

By weekend’s end, the fear is that conductor Osmo Vänskä will follow through on his threat to leave, a performance at New York’s Carnegie Hall on Nov. 3 will be lost, more musicians will leave and the prestige of a once-acclaimed orchestra will be crushed.

All of this has created growing frustration among the city’s music lovers.

“I want to see a public leader step to the forefront, take the two sides by the hand, lock them in a room, feed and water them until white smoke comes from the chimney,’’ said Laurie Greeno, co-chair of Orchestrate Excellence, a group of music lovers that formed in the hope of somehow helping to bring the Orchestra board and the musicians together.

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In an op-ed piece in the Star Tribune earlier this week, Greeno and Orchestrate Excellence Co-chair Paula DeCosse called on Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, the governor and anyone from the congressional delegation to take over and force some sort of resolution.

That call, to force sides to sit down together, is common in all labor disputes.

Rybak himself echoed the plea. In comments to the Star Tribune this week, Rybak told the two sides to “lock yourself in a room and shut up about it until you come back with a solution.’’

In a Thursday interview with MinnPost, Rybak expanded on his thoughts, many of which are rooted in his own participation in a newspaper strike when he was a reporter with the Star Tribune. Both sides in that strike, he said, were so interested in “winning over public opinion’’ that he believes hammering out an agreement was delayed. 

He said he’s ready to do anything he can to resolve the year-long lockout, but nothing can happen until “both sides are willing to think differently.’’

The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service has been involved in this mess since the lockout began.

Mediator can force meetings but not progress

According to a mediator who asked not to be named and who is not affiliated with the federal service, the feds could force the two sides to sit in the same room.

“But what is accomplished if  the two sides just sit there and glare,’’ the mediator said.

Rybak and Gov. Mark Dayton also have made attempts to help bring the sides together.

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For his part, Rybak, along with orchestra benefactor Judy Dayton, hosted a special concert last February. Ostensibly, the concert was to celebrate the orchestra’s nomination for a Grammy Award. The greater hope, the mayor said Thursday, was that “the music would take over’’ and help bring the sides together.

The concert was a musical success and a peace-making dud.

It was Dayton who brought former Sen. George Mitchell, the mediator who brought peace to Northern Ireland in 1998, into the orchestra dispute.

A representative from his office said that Mitchell would not be available for an interview while involved in the orchestra dispute. But a comment he made in an interview he did with The Guardian years after the signing of the Good Friday peace agreement in Northern Ireland seems appropriate to what’s unfolding in Minnesota.

Mitchell was speaking about how both sides were tired of the endless violence in Northern Ireland.

“We don’t want this conflict to continue but we want it settled on terms that are acceptable to us. And, of course, terms that are acceptable to one community may not be acceptable to the other. So the task of leadership is to reconcile those tensions the best you can under the circumstances.’’

Mediator Mitchell’s proposal didn’t fly

Mitchell’s first attempt at creating the framework of a settlement was not acceptable to Orchestra management.

Reports indicate that the Mitchell proposal would have had the sides sign a four-month agreement, covering Sept. 1 through Dec. 31.  In the first two months, the musicians would have received the pay they received under their expired contract and taken a 6 percent cut in the second two months. If no resolution were reached after four months, the two sides would go back to their trenches.

The point is, politicians have attempted to get involved.

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On Wednesday,  U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison piped up, writing a letter urging the Orchestra board to accept the Mitchell proposal. On Thursday, Minneapolis mayoral candidate Betsy Hodges followed suit, saying management should agree to the Mitchell plan. Hodges noted that much of the renovation of Orchestra Hall comes from state bonding money, meaning there is public investment in all of this.

But to date, only one local politician has had a positive impact in these musician-management disputes. St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman played a significant role in ending the lockout of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.

With management in one room, musicians in another, Coleman and Joe Spencer, the city’s director of arts and culture, shuttled back and forth. The big issue, Coleman said, was re-establishing a sense of “trust’’ that had been dashed during the six months of lockout.

There was another big issue: Coleman was “asked’’ to step in. And he gladly did, because getting the orchestra back and playing was of vital interest to the city, he said. The Ordway, he said, is vital to the vitality of downtown St. Paul, and the Chamber Orchestra is vital to the Ordway.

“People have to understand that the Chamber Orchestra is St. Paul’s ambassador to the world,’’ Coleman said.

In the end, there were small changes in the makeup of the negotiators. But the key, Coleman said, was that both sides were willing to move off their dug-in positions.

The musicians made significant sacrifices, receiving pay cuts of about 18 percent and a reduction in the size of the orchestra from 34 to 28 members. But that cut was a far cry from the 30 percent reduction that was initially “offered.’’ In addition, musicians received better retirement benefits and other small perks. Chamber management is claiming savings of more than $1 million annually.

SPCO settlement left some unhappy with Coleman

It was not a settlement that created happiness among all.  Coleman knows there are at least some musicians angry with him. But that’s not a universal sentiment.

“I was in line at a coffee shop the other day,’’ he said, “and a musician came up and thanked me profusely for helping.’’ 

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The biggest thanks, though, came last week at Mears Park when the  Chamber Orchestra played a free outdoor concert.

“It was glorious,’’ said Coleman. “They performed like a world-class orchestra.’’

Musicians – and pro-labor people of all stripes – need to understand that these are different from most labor disputes, Coleman said. Management is unique.

“The board is not taking money for its own ends,’’ he said. “They’re on the board and these are the same people who are giving millions [in donations] to the orchestras.  They [board members] are not like Crystal Sugar or any typical labor dispute.’’

On the other hand, both the boards of the Minnesota Orchestra and the St. Paul Chamber threw down gauntlets by demanding immediate acceptance of contracts calling for deep cuts in wages. When those contracts were refused, both boards quickly locked out their performers.

Rybak called the lockout decisions “very aggressive.’’ Certainly, take-it-or-leave-it offers don’t help set the stage for meaningful mediation.

Pawn in a bigger game?

But while many still question the lockouts as a tactic, there are others who say that musicians in the Twin Cities have been pawns in a much bigger game. Members of the two orchestras, they say, have been asked to go to the wall so members of more prestigious orchestras don’t have to.

That rumbling of outsiders being involved likely was buttressed by an op-ed piece in Thursday’s Star Tribune by Bruce Ridge, who is chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians. 

Ridge, a double bassist with the North Carolina Symphony, wrote: “The true story to be told is how well orchestras have weathered the recession, demonstrating once again the vitality of our nation’s artistic organizations. Managements and musicians in numerous orchestras have settled agreements with modest increases in the past 12 months.’’

One spokesperson for the musicians had a quick response to the idea that Minnesota Orchestra members are somehow being manipulated by outsiders. “B.s.,’’ he said.

Ridge was unavailable for comment.

Ignored, to date, are the pleas of music lovers such as those involved in Orchestrate Excellence. 

Politicians rallied for sports issues

Greeno can’t help but wonder if the reaction in the region among political leaders would be so muted if professional sports were on the line.  When first the Twins, then the Vikings, threatened to leave, politicians moved to get stadiums built.

“It seems like we’re willing to let this [the status of the orchestra] go, but we’re not willing to let the Roman Colosseum sports go,’’ she said. “I understand that so many people care about professional sports. The Vikings sell out their stadium. There are tens of thousands of people on the streets for Twins games. But the impact of this orchestra is significant, too.’’

Beyond the people who show up at Orchestra Hall and their economic impact in hotels and restaurants, there are thousands of children a year exposed to classical music because of the presence of the orchestra, she said. There’s also the image of a region also riding on the skill of the orchestra.

She pointed out that there’s a big effort just begun to renovate Nicollet Mall. Orchestra Hall is an important feature of the Mall. She added that millions have been invested in the Hall — the spiffy new look was unveiled Thursday. But without a world-class orchestra, the Hall is meaningless.

Interestingly, she said, members of her organization have been told by both musicians and board members that a settlement should be possible and that the organization’s efforts are appreciated. But some of the ideas they have tried to advance to resolve the issue have been rejected.

For example, Greeno said she doesn’t understand why there hasn’t been more talk of some reduction in pay for the musicians in exchange for musicians having greater say in the governance of the orchestra. (The Chamber settlement puts a musician, Kyn-Young Kim, in a management position.)

But the group also has been written off “as a nuisance organization’’ by some, in part because it’s a group not made up of wealthy people who make large donations to the orchestra.

“Some of our members have to scrape up money to go to a concert,’’ she said. “We’re involved because we love the music.’’

There have been efforts by many to get involved, to help mediate, but it still takes two to settle the dispute. Or even agree to talk.