Behind the scenes of wearying labor fight, personal diplomacy paved way to peace.
For more than a year, the Minnesota Orchestra dispute was defined by sound and fury — rhetorical firebombs, negotiations conducted through the media, personality conflicts and political machinations. Musicians called for the head of CEO Michael Henson and railed against “an incompetent board.” Management at one point said it was willing to let music director Osmo Vänskä quit if that was the price for achieving its goals.
In the final analysis, though, a quiet, off-the-record entreaty, a dozen low-key meetings and fatigue on both sides ended the longest work stoppage in U.S. orchestra history.
Interviews with insiders reveal that a change in personalities, a sense of confidence among musicians that they had found partners they could trust on the other side, and flexibility in the board’s approach produced a contract that will put musicians back on stage at Orchestra Hall starting Feb. 7.
There is still much work to be done by musicians, staff and board members who are walking on eggshells as they recover from the last 15 months. The remnants of a concert season must be salvaged, and audiences and donors must recommit to a brand seriously damaged in the public war.
“The contract is not the end, it’s the beginning,” said Lee Henderson, a Minneapolis attorney who argued for ways out of the impasse.
The low point of this affair came on Oct. 1, when failure to reach an agreement precipitated Vänskä’s resignation.
Each side blamed the other for botching this chance to save a charismatic and artistically gifted leader. Board chairman Jon Campbell, an executive vice president at Wells Fargo, said there would be a pause as both sides sorted through the wreckage.
However, back-channel discussions — which were frequent throughout the previous year — soon started again. Minneapolis attorney Doug Kelley and longtime director Nicky Carpenter, both members of the board’s negotiating team, reached out to principal trombonist Doug Wright and clarinetist Tim Zavadil, members of the five-member musicians negotiating team.
Those four met for lunch at Nicollet Island Inn to see if there might be a way forward, but the musicians walked away after the second meeting. Wright felt they were just rehashing old talking points.
Musicians went off to plan their own concerts, which would provide them work and income, but said their first priority was to get a deal.
So shortly before Thanksgiving, Wright and cellist Tony Ross had coffee with Ron Lund, a respected former board chair and retired general counsel at Medtronic. Could he help find a way out of this mess? Lund said he would listen.
“We just wanted to see if there was some way to start talking again,” Wright said.
Lund said he would need to tell the board’s lead negotiator, US Bancorp CEO Richard Davis, about the informal conversations. Davis encouraged him to continue, and to add Luella Goldberg, another board member known to be sympathetic to the musicians. This foursome sought to develop a framework for a deal.
Kelley and board negotiator Jim Melville joined the conversations with the full musicians committee. The group met privately at the Minneapolis Club, lunching together as they talked. Lund insisted the negotiators not sit on separate sides of a table and lob proposals back and forth. Kelley called the mood civil and courteous.
“Ron let us know that this had gone on long enough,” Wright said. “They were tired of it, and we had been locked out for more than a year.”
Board negotiators made it clear that they could not sell a deal with a pay concession of any less than 15 percent. The musicians were adamant that salaries must be high enough to keep Minnesota among the top 10 U.S. orchestras.
After some anguish, those goals were achieved, with small salary increases in the second and third years of the deal and a revenue-sharing formula tied to endowment performance.
Musicians made concessions on the issue of paying substitute players 90 percent of base salary and on health care costs. Also, the agreement to hire only seven more musicians over the next three years (to get to 84) will save money.
Meanwhile, management got about 15 of the 200-plus work-rule changes it sought, and accepted that the contract would in its first year achieve only $3.5 million of a hoped-for $5 million in savings.
Dick Cisek, a former orchestra president, said last week he felt the deal “was a reasonable compromise.”
Divisive early talks
From the start, negotiators were at cross purposes. Campbell and Davis, both bankers, presented what they felt was an airtight case to slash $5 million in annual expenses. Musicians could help decide where the money would come from, but the number was etched in stone. This did not feel like bargaining to the union.
The relationships — including those between lawyers Bruce Simon for the musicians and Paul Zech for the board — became toxic and both sides grew frustrated with the other’s perceived intransigence. Davis and Campbell were new to labor negotiations. Simon offended the board negotiators with a style that one called “loud and profane.” The musicians made no economic counterproposal and the lockout was declared on Oct. 1, 2012.
The musicians began to wage a public-relations campaign aimed at winning community support and forcing the board to relent. That, however, would take time.
The union also held out hope that a financial angel or two would descend with extraordinary gifts to cover the costs of a new contract.
The public-relations strategy energized groups such as Save Our Symphony Minnesota and Orchestrate Excellence. Concerts put on by the musicians routinely sold out. But many in the general public felt musicians were well-paid.
The closest any angel came to solving the crisis was when Marilyn Carlson Nelson spearheaded an effort to raise money for $20,000 signing bonuses in a September proposal that musicians rejected.
Throughout the lockout, the back channel was busy in different forms — small groups, one-on-one conversations, face-to-face meetings, conference calls. Nothing worked. Finally, last summer, the sides agreed to see whether former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell — whom Kelley knew from his days as Sen. David Durenberger’s chief of staff — would mediate talks.
Mitchell’s efforts were hampered by an intractable fact: musicians said they wouldn’t negotiate unless the lockout was lifted. The board said no way. Mitchell’s proposal to open a four-month window in which the lockout was lifted was accepted by the musicians but rejected by the board. Relations deteriorated again.
On the night of the Symphony Ball, for example, Kelley told a reporter that he and Zech were flying to New York the next morning to meet with Zavadil and Simon in Mitchell’s office. When they arrived, Kelley said they were told there would be no talks under the lockout. “They couldn’t have told us that over the phone?” Kelley asked recently.
Even when the crisis reached its fever pitch in late September — after Gov. Mark Dayton pushed both sides to get something done and Vänskä’s future was at stake — there was an odd lack of urgency. The board made an offer on a Thursday, through the media. Musicians unanimously rejected the proposal Saturday morning, but waited until Monday afternoon to make a counteroffer. The board rejected it and declined further talks. Vänskä quit the next morning, and observers around the country scratched their heads over what was going on in Minnesota.
The road back
The future also includes challenges of bringing back audiences, finding an artistic leader and rebuilding fundraising. Partisans of the musicians commented online last week that they are not ready to give money to the organization. Campbell and Davis are leaving the board, but a new chair has not been named.
Blois Olson, the musicians’ spokesman, said the players will continue to operate the separate nonprofit that was formed during the dispute, with a mission to perform “community education and outreach for classical music.”
Henderson, the attorney who wrote several op-ed pieces about the dispute, said public awareness will be heightened.
“One thing that has happened for better or worse, the board is under a spotlight,” he said. “We the public can’t fall asleep at the switch.”
Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299