Inside the Minnesota Orchestra negotiations: A key conversation avoided an impasse

Doug Wright
Doug Wright, a member of the Minnesota Orchestra musician's negotiating committee, announces the results of a vote on the latest offer from management on Saturday, Sept. 28, 2013.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

A little over a month ago, many people likely found it hard to imagine that there would ever be a resolution to the contentious contract dispute between the Minnesota Orchestra's management and its musicians.

After all, the orchestra's lockout of the musicians was entering its 15th month and acclaimed Music Director Osmo Vanska had resigned. Many musicians also were leaving, and every public attempt at negotiation had collapsed.

Throughout the labor management struggle, the warring sides carefully maintained back-channel communications in which their representatives quietly talked on the phone or in person. But until about a month ago, that effort also failed — and a potential disaster was in the making, one that might have forced orchestra managers to declare an impasse in the labor dispute.

All that changed when trombonist Doug Wright, a member of the musicians negotiating team, reached out to Ron Lund, a member of the orchestra's board, and suggested they talk. That conversation led to another conversation, and the talks became more substantive.

"Ron said to us, at some point, 'You know, look it. It feels like this ship is stuck on a sandbar, and it's time for us to either get this off the sandbar or send in the salvage team,'" Wright recalled.

Pressures were mounting on both sides. Everyone — from musicians to management and the public — had grown tired of the dispute. The musicians had been without salaries and health insurance for over a year, and their unemployment benefits were running out.

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According to management negotiator Doug Kelley, barring a settlement, a very unpleasant option might raise its head as the lockout dragged on: declaring an impasse.

"I believe everybody in the process knew that if things just irretrievably broke down that the next step was unpalatable to everybody," Kelley said.

Under labor law, if negotiations stall completely in a contract dispute, management can declare an impasse and impose a contract. Workers can either return to work under that contract, or strike. If there is a strike, management can then hire replacement workers — an ugly process at the best of times.

Given the Minnesota Orchestra's high profile, that was pretty much a nuclear option. Kelley said some outsiders had urged the board to make the move, but members resisted.

As luck would have it, their resistance gave the talks that began between Wright and Lund time to bear fruit that resulted in an agreement on Jan. 15. Wright said their discussions weren't about money, but artistic philosophy.

"I think the thing that was missing was a common goal," Wright said. "And it suddenly became clear that he wanted the same thing that we wanted, which was to keep a great orchestra here in Minnesota."

The conversations weren't going on in a vacuum. Both negotiating teams received reports. Gradually other people joined the talks, among them musicians' representative Kevin Watkins and Louella Goldberg, a member of the orchestra's board.

Kelley said past talks had collapsed when management insistence on financial stability collided with musicians' insistence on artistic excellence.

Once the conversations began, he said, board members hoped Lund and Goldberg could articulate their side's need to save money.

"The musicians would realize they have the people most favorable to them across the table and if they say we have to have a 15 percent overall cut that they knew the board of directors would mean it," Kelley said.

More people joined the talks, including Kelley. Wright said the conversations organically became negotiations.

A priority for the musicians was maintaining salaries that would keep the Minnesota Orchestra among the top 10 in the United States in terms of wages, a way of attracting and keeping the best players.

Kelley said they began looking at ways of saving money other than cutting pay. Management offered a revenue sharing plan should the endowment exceed certain levels.

The musicians agreed to pay significantly more of their healthcare costs, and to limit the number of musician hires. Kelley said it was a true compromise.

"The combination of those three things allowed us to get to our 15 percent savings and still allowed us to keep their salaries in the top 10," he said.

Although the musicians took a pay cut of over 10 percent during the three years of the deal, Wright said the contract allows the orchestra to go forward.

"I think that we came out of this with the ability to rebuild and to maintain a great orchestra here," he said. "It's not all pretty and it's not going to be easy, but I think that we have given ourselves that ability."

Wright said he is already thinking about the next contract negotiation in three years and whether things will go smoothly or begin "World War II." He said musicians are hopeful the new board leadership due to be elected in coming weeks will create a better relationship with the musicians. He said both the musicians' voices and those of the audience will be important as the Minnesota Orchestra goes forward.

Kelly said he believes the new contract contains the building blocks for success for the Minnesota Orchestra. He is also hopeful that it, and an improved economy, will make for an easier negotiation next time. One 15-month lockout is enough, he said.

"I don't have the energy to go through it again, and I don't think anyone else would even contemplate it right now," Kelley said.