Minn. Orchestra management makes new contract offer

The conflict between the two sides in the Minnesota Orchestra dispute has taken a new turn. A contract offer released Thursday, which management said could end the 11 month lockout and preserve the fall season, was quickly dismissed by musicians. They called it a rejection of a confidential mediation process initially promoted by the board.

The offer from the board came 24 hours after Minnesota Orchestra Music Director Osmo Vanska announced he needs to be rehearsing with musicians by the week of Sept. 30 if the orchestra is to be sufficiently prepared for two high profile concerts at Carnegie Hall in early November.

The management offer includes a timetable to match the Vanska deadline: Management asks the musicians to vote by Sept. 9, so if they accept they can return to work on Sept. 30.

Minnesota Orchestra President and CEO Michael Henson says the proposal had been made during confidential mediation which has been going on for several weeks. The process was set up at the behest of Gov. Mark Dayton and is being led by former U.S. Ambassador George Mitchell.

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Henson said that after a series of leaks to the press about the process, the board decided it wanted to make the offer in public and then debate the issues.

"We want the musicians either to accept this offer, or if they don't like it, to actually please tell us what they would like," he said.

The offer is a hybrid of playing and talking, coupled to two-year contract. If musicians accept the offer they would come back for two months under the provisions of the old contract and continue negotiating a new deal. If there was no agreement after two months a 24 month contract would kick in, offering an average salary of $102,000 a year for musicians. The average salary under the old contract was $135,000. There are changes to work rules, although not as many as under the board's initial contract offer last year.

Response from the musicians representative Blois Olson was quick and unequivocal.

"Musicians are very disappointed that management has abandoned Senator George Mitchell's mediators agreement. He was the mediator selected by management and they have apparently rejected his proposal and now abandoned mediation," he said.

Olson said musicians overwhelmingly rejected the proposal when it was put to them through the mediator some weeks ago. The only proposal they have accepted was one from Mitchell himself which a leaked document revealed was a four-month play and talk deal. Two months would be at old salary levels and then two at a lower level, with the understanding that the lockout would return if there was no agreement by the end.

Olson said it was management that turned down that deal.

"We find it ironic that they would reject their own mediators proposal," he said.

Henson said the Mitchell proposal would have had serious financial implications for the orchestra.

"It would have resulted in a $2.8 million deficit for four months, and with no assurance the musicians would offer a counter proposal," he said. "The musicians have never acknowledged the financial problem that we face, or that they are part of the solution."

Henson has long argued that the orchestra needs to trim its budget if it is to remain viable into the future, and after cuts in all other areas, the musicians contract remains the largest budget item untouched. He said the board is happy to return to mediation, but its focus remains on finding a contract agreeable to both sides.

Olson said the musicians will likely meet to discuss the offer and the current situation in coming days and weeks.

Meanwhile there is clearly growing public frustration with the situation. Dayton released a statement declaring he had no direct knowledge of recent developments and so could make no comment. "My position remains the same. The musicians and board should settle --- now," he said.

The proposal news also delayed of the release of the results of a brainstorming session organized last week by the audience group Orchestrate Excellence. Hundreds of orchestra supporters attended.

Reportedly there are 34 pages of suggestions for ending the dispute and helping maintain the orchestra once it restarts performances. However, the overwhelming demand was for the two sides to sit down and talk.