By Tom Steward | Watchdog Minnesota Bureau
MINNEAPOLIS — The relationship involving the Minnesota Orchestra and Twin Cities Music Union Local 30-73 is badly out of tune.
Can former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell help?
Mitchell isn’t a musician, nor does he play one on TV, yet the legendary special envoy to the Middle East and Northern Ireland has become entangled in a year-long labor lockout that’s proving to be as intractable as a Middle East minefield.
It’s the longest running labor dispute involving a major American symphony — ever.
“It’s a lockout which is far different than a strike,” said Blois Olson, spokesman for Twin Cities Music Union Local 30-73. “It’s a kind of a new dynamic in labor relations in America.”
It hardly fits the stereo-typical blue collar-management standoff, with these musicians accustomed to six-figure salaries, an orchestra and a high-brow audience.
Yet the 110-year-old Minnesota Orchestra faces the possibility of a second straight canceled concert season, a scratched November gig in Carnegie Hall and the threatened resignation of celebrated conductor Osmo Vanska, unless the deadlock is resolved by Sept. 30.
The dispute centers on a strategic restructuring of an orchestra with an endowment that took a 30 percent hit in the recession year of 2009, according to an outside orchestra audit. Despite administrative cuts and a wage freeze agreed to by the union, the orchestra insists operating deficits ballooned at unsustainable rates, even with a large private endowment, some $59 million at the end of fiscal 2012. That endowment, after fiscal 2008, was $93 million.
After it was locked out in October, the union doubled down and refused to bargain. It claimed base salaries “would plummet, overnight, to a figure that, adjusted for inflation, equates to what our musicians were earning in 1983.”
At the same time, the orchestra was staging a $50 million renovation of its concert hall, a mix of private fundraising and $14 million in state bonding. Legislators demanded a state review of the orchestra’s testimony requesting state support for the renovation and the use of public money, as the union ratcheted up the pressure.
“Since the lockout began, every major league American orchestra that has settled a contract has done so with modest wage increases or freezes for their musicians,” said Olson. “So clearly this is not a national problem. It is an issue of local dynamics.”
The Office of the Legislative Auditor cleared the orchestra’s testimony and use of state bonding and operating funds from the Minnesota State Arts Board through 2012. But the orchestra voluntarily returned nearly $960,000 in state arts operating funds amid questions about taxpayer funding in a year of blacked-out concerts.
The much-anticipated renovation of Orchestra Hall unveiled in Minneapolis last week received rave reviews from the media. It features a sparkling new glass front lobby and atrium, granite floors, a dramatic terrace and rehearsal and meeting space — plus an empty house and stage.
Over the weekend the two parties returned to the negotiating table in Washington, D.C. The two sides do not yet appear to be playing from the same sheet of music, even with Mitchell serving as guest conductor.
“We are encouraged that management decided to return to the Mitchell process in the past few days,” said Olson. “We’re still a long way away, but we’re going to work around the clock to try to find a solution.”
A recent offer — less of a pay-cut than an earlier proposal — would guarantee an annual average salary of $102,000 per musician for a two-year contract, total average compensation of $135,000 and 10 weeks paid vacation, according to the orchestra. Even so, management claims the symphony would still incur a $1.1 million annual deficit in its $31.5 million annual budget. The terms now being discussed have not been disclosed publicly.
“We are continuing conversations with the mediator and are cautiously hopeful as we await a response from the Union on the board’s third proposal,” says the orchestra’s latest statement. “We are keeping Carnegie Hall apprised of the unfolding situation and appreciate their patience.”
It may not be Carnegie Hall, but the musicians just announced a self-produced series of fall concerts to be held at the University of Minnesota. Tickets are already on sale for Beethoven, Mozart and Stravinsky’s “The Firebird.”
Contact Tom Steward at email@example.com.