Battle fatigue, quiet talks ended Minnesota Orchestra lockout

  • Article by: GRAYDON ROYCE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 18, 2014 - 10:47 PM

Behind the scenes of wearying labor fight, personal diplomacy paved way to peace.


Clarinetist Tim Zavadil spoke about the contract agreement with the Minnesota Orchestra board. He was flanked by fellow musicians Kevin Watkins, Doug Wright, Marcia Peck and Tony Ross.

Photo: Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

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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.

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