Ten Obfuscations from Minnesota Orchestra Management’s Oct 1 Press Release

The Minnesota Orchestra lockout began at midnight on October 1. Early that morning, management canceled concerts through November 25. I read the official press release describing the reasoning behind the cancellations with some serious perplexion, as sentence after sentence after sentence contained obfuscations that I personally feel were very easily avoidable.

Come along and let’s take a closer look together.

The final proposal offers an average annual salary of $89,000, a guaranteed pension benefit that includes an annual contribution by the Orchestral Association of 7.63 percent of base salary, 10 weeks paid vacation and up to 26 weeks of paid sick leave.

Obfuscation #1: Professional orchestral musicians never have ten weeks of paid vacation a year. Period. “Vacation weeks” are merely “weeks the musicians do not perform with the orchestra.” During those “vacation” weeks, they are still practicing at home and studying for hours and hours a day. Musicians don’t often have vacation days, and they never ever have vacation weeks. If they go a single day without practicing, they will get twitchy, and will become highly unpleasant individuals to be around. Trust me. Management seems to be banking on you not knowing this. They seem to be leaving out facts so that they can manipulate you. They seem to be afraid to take a couple extra sentences to explain the fuller, more nuanced truth. Don’t let yourself be manipulated.

Obfuscation #2: “Sick leave” ought to be relabeled “injury leave.” Management knows that the average patron doesn’t understand what a physically demanding job being an orchestra musician is – or how often and how agonizingly orchestral musicians get hurt on the job – or that being forced by finances to play while injured can easily result in the end of careers that began in early childhood – or that insufficient rest can lead to musicians seeking wildly expensive medical care. Management seems to be banking on you not knowing this. They seem to be leaving out facts so that they can manipulate you. They seem to be afraid to take a couple extra sentences to explain the fuller, more nuanced truth. Don’t let yourself be manipulated.

Throughout the nearly six month negotiating process, the musicians have not offered a single counter-proposal.

Obfuscation #3: According to the musicians, they did not offer a single counter-proposal because they were waiting on important financial information before they felt they could make a fair and realistic offer. When that information was refused them, musicians offered at the eleventh hour to go through binding arbitration. This is an offer that is historic in its generosity on the part of the musicians. Look at the situations in Louisville and Detroit if you don’t believe me. The managements there would have killed to have the luxury of going into binding arbitration before their work stoppages even began. Management seems to be banking on you not knowing this. They seem to be leaving out facts so that they can manipulate you. They seem to be afraid to take a couple extra sentences to explain the fuller, more nuanced truth. Don’t let yourself be manipulated.

We have great respect for our musicians’ talents

Obfuscation #4. Look at obfuscations #1 and #2. If they really respected and understood their musicians’ talents, would they really obfuscate about their working conditions, and make them sound like lazy entitled children? Management seems to be banking on you not knowing this. They seem to be leaving out facts so that they can manipulate you. They seem to be afraid to take a couple extra sentences to explain the fuller, more nuanced truth. Don’t let yourself be manipulated.

The Orchestral Association honored the musicians’ 2007 contract even though, in the midst of the recession, it placed unsustainable pressure on our endowment.

Obfuscation #5. I’ve already covered this before, so I’ll just link to my longer entry explaining it. But in short, Michael Henson, the Minnesota Orchestral Association, and the board were delighted with the way things were going financially at the orchestra all the way through 2010, more than halfway through that unsustainable contract. In fact, they were so happy with how things were going that in July 2010 they posted an article from Gig Magazine tossing around such phrases as “the Minnesota Orchestra stands out as a beacon institution among the bad [economic] news.” If you want to read it yourself, feel free to go to the Minnesota Orchestra website and do so, because it’s still there. They haven’t even bothered to take it down, although it directly contradicts what they say over here. (If they do ever take it down, let me know. I’ve saved a copy on my hard drive and can upload it if necessary.) (Edit: And, whaddayaknow, they finally got around to taking it down…in mid-October, when it was rather too late. Details on this here.) Management seems to be banking on you not knowing this. They seem to be leaving out facts so that they can manipulate you. They seem to be afraid to take a couple extra sentences to explain the fuller, more nuanced truth. Don’t let yourself be manipulated.

(Also, management ignores the fact that musicians gave $4.2 million in concessions in 2009. Management seems to be banking on you not knowing this. They seem to be leaving out facts so that they can manipulate you. They seem to be afraid to take a couple extra sentences to explain the fuller, more nuanced truth. Don’t let yourself be manipulated.)

We cannot resolve these issues without significant participation from our musicians nor can we turn responsibility for the Orchestra’s future over to a single arbitrator.

Obfuscation #6. If, after the books were opened, and the proposed changes were fair and warranted, chances are, an arbitrator would impose significant participation onto musicians, and the musicians were willing to take that very real risk. Salary is a secondary sticking point in this battle. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that if we were discussing just salary and not contract changes, we might have settled this dispute many months ago. No, this battle is about a number of non-financial contract changes or nominally-financial contract changes that “give management more flexibility” but actually have the unfortunate consequence of allowing businessmen to make vital artistic decisions. A reader who has studied the contract more carefully than I have recently pointed out this little gem to me. It’s Section 23.3, (15), about Audition Committee. It’s on page 39 here.

Yes, Michael Henson would like to be the one with final authority to “extend an offer of employment to a potential Musician.” He does not want this ultimate power to go to the musicians. He does not want this ultimate power to go to the music director. No, he wants that power to go to…Michael Henson.

Do you understand? These are the kinds of radical changes the musicians are objecting to. Many of them have nothing to do with money, and everything to do with power and sustaining artistic excellence. These are the kinds of changes that are buried deep within the 50-page contract of thick and thorny legalese. These are the kinds of changes whose implications have yet to be fully understood by the public, because our press is overworked and there is not a single expert reporter working on this story full-time. Question: would anyone with an orchestra’s best interests at heart really want to have Michael Henson tasked with extending offers of employment to musicians, without having to be held accountable to anyone else? That has nothing to do with money. Management seems to be banking on you not knowing this. They seem to be leaving out facts so that they can manipulate you. They seem to be afraid to take a couple extra sentences to explain the fuller, more nuanced truth. Don’t let yourself be manipulated.

Since 2009, the full-time management and administrative staff have experienced a salary reduction, a wage freeze and more than a 40 percent reduction of their pension contributions from the Orchestral Association.

Obfuscation #7. According to public documents, Michael Henson makes $404,000 a year, which is up from his 2009 salary of $390,000. (According to this Star Tribune article, Salaries drop for nonprofit leaders, this is 1.5x the average for “nonprofits with budgets of $25 million to $50 million,” which is $243,000.) I know that others within the organization have sacrificed, and sacrificed greatly, but based on the available public evidence, I’m not convinced their leader did. Shouldn’t great leaders lead by example? Of course Henson’s salary alone wouldn’t fix the financial problem management says they have, but it would send a message about his character. It would send a message about his humanity, and respect, and shared sacrifice. As Andrew Young once observed on the Colbert Report, strikes aren’t about money; they’re about respect. Also, let’s be clear: I don’t think any of the musicians are scorning the people who wield relatively little power within the organization, who have suffered terribly throughout this whole debacle. According to one of my readers, at least one of these hardworking underpaid people was fired via email. If this is indeed true (and I have heard no one dispute it, or apologize for it), do you believe that high-level management really cares so much about the people below them? Or might they instead be seeing them as pawns in a grand seven-tier chess game (as nationally renowned arts consultant Drew McManus feared back in May)? No, this is a failure of leadership from the very top: from powerful multi-multi-millionaire board leaders Jon Campbell and Richard Davis, and Michael Henson. Management seems to be banking on you not knowing this. They seem to be leaving out facts so that they can manipulate you. They seem to be afraid to take a couple extra sentences to explain the fuller, more nuanced truth. Don’t let yourself be manipulated.

“We have been transparent with our musicians over the last three years about the substantial financial challenges facing the organization and the need for change in this new economic climate,” said MOA Board Negotiating Chair Richard Davis.

Obfuscation #8. Once again, I direct you to the article I wrote, wondering if the orchestra has indeed been transparent about the substantial financial challenges facing the organization. Because several articles from 2008-2010 would indicate they were not. They were certainly not transparent to the press, and they were certainly not transparent to their patrons and their donors. Management seems to be banking on you not knowing this. They seem to be leaving out facts so that they can manipulate you. They seem to be afraid to take a couple extra sentences to explain the fuller, more nuanced truth. Don’t let yourself be manipulated.

The musicians’ 2007 contract, which expired on October 1, included an increase of 19.2 percent to musician base salary over the life of the five-year contract.

Obfuscation #9. Financiers like Jon Campbell and Richard Davis may be interested to learn of the existence of a thing called “inflation.” Pesky thing, inflation: it throws a wrench into the simplest of calculations. The rate of inflation in 2007 was 4.1%, in 2008 was .1%, in 2009 was 2.7%, in 2010 was 1.5%, and in 2011 was 3.0%. 2012 numbers are obviously unavailable, but so far look to be about 2.3%. That’s an approximately 13.7% rate of inflation over the life of the contract. That’s a mere 5.5% raise above the rate of inflation over the course of five years, or in other words, a little over one percent a year. And during that time, the Minnesota Orchestra has solidified its reputation as one of the greatest orchestras in the world. I don’t know about you, but I personally believe that when you distinguish yourself professionally in an internationally cutthroat scene, you deserve every single penny of your 1% annual raise above the rate of inflation. Maybe management wasn’t able to afford the contract they signed in 2007, and maybe they can’t afford it now, but they can’t imply their musicians haven’t deserved that increase in pay. Management seems to be banking on you not knowing this. They seem to be leaving out facts so that they can manipulate you. They seem to be afraid to take a couple extra sentences to explain the fuller, more nuanced truth. Don’t let yourself be manipulated.

We must be very respectful of our donors and ticket buyers; gifts and ticket sales alone cannot be expected to bridge our financial gap.

Obfuscation #10. Yes, management must be very respectful of their donors and ticket buyers, but they aren’t being very respectful of their donors and ticket buyers. Their donors and their ticket buyers have invested their hard-earned cash in a very specific product. In doing so, there was an implicit trust that the high quality of this very specific product would be sustained. Pretend someone sold you a ticket to see the Super Bowl and you dropped a lot of cash doing so ($14 million in the case of the state taxpayer; or $2.61 for every man, woman, and child in Minnesota, the vast majority of whom will never set foot in Orchestra Hall). Imagine buying your Super Bowl tickets, being escorted into the stadium…and then seeing two local high school football teams warming up on the field. Such a transaction would be the height of disrespect and obfuscation. I’m qualified to say so, because over the last five years, according to publicly available documents, I’ve spent a higher percentage of my income buying Minnesota Orchestra tickets than Richard Davis has donated to the Minnesota Orchestra. If the quality of the orchestra had not been so stellar, would they have gotten as many donations as they did, and sold as many tickets as they did? If they had been trying to sell a first-rate new lobby for a second-rate orchestra, would they have succeeded in their $100 million quest to “build for the future”? I don’t think they would have, and I don’t think management thinks so either, because the orchestra always prominently features that famous Alex Ross quote wherever they go: “the greatest orchestra in the world.” So at some subconscious level, they must understand that they need that kind of world-class quality to pull in that kind of money. And Michael Henson needs that world-class quality to get the money to pay his world-class salary.

For the final time:

Management seems to be banking on you not knowing this. They seem to be leaving out facts so that they can manipulate you. They seem to be afraid to take a couple extra sentences to explain the fuller, more nuanced truth. Don’t let yourself be manipulated.

So there are ten obfuscations right there. Some are obviously more blatant than others. I could dig in and explain more, but once you get to a certain point, further dissection and discussion become overkill. When you have a 765 word press release, and can find 10 obfuscations within those 765 words, that’s a ratio of obfuscations to words of 1:77, or a demonstrable obfuscation every few sentences. If I can’t trust the orchestra’s press releases, do you blame me for not trusting anything else they say? Especially when the organization is resisting independent financial analysis, refusing to go through binding arbitration, and contradicting what it says in public about its finances? And never taking the time to explain the discrepancies?

Musicians may well have to sacrifice, and sacrifice a lot, to keep this mighty organization afloat. But we can’t know for sure until the obfuscations stop.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Ten Obfuscations from Minnesota Orchestra Management’s Oct 1 Press Release

  1. Tamara

    Go Song of the Lark!

  2. I suggest you get ahold of that article on the mnorch website about Michael Henson and post the text directly onto your blog. and keep another record of it somewhere. If this whole fiasco is as conspiracy-esque as we think it could be, management might start hiding more things before real info comes out. It might just be a good idea to have that article handy in case…

    and, as ever, wonderful post. All very true. I have a particularly strong feeling about the “sick-leave” because as a musician currently recovering from an injury I know how it feels to be injured… and the humiliation that comes with “I can’t lift that box because I got tendonitis from playing my instrument”… and the sadness of not being able to play. Yeah, it sucks.

    I think if we can all just stay strong and keep supporting the musicians, and as long as they don’t give up, management doesn’t really stand much of a chance. Oh! They may win the negotiation battle, they may get their cuts and their hall and whatever the hell else, but the musicians are winning the war, and that’s what counts. And I think a wage cut in favor of a fair contract is the most reasonable truce anyway.

  3. I have been going since The Minneapolis was at Northrup. I remember an interview on KSJN when Skrovie was asked to compare then and now. He said, in paraphrase, that now, they are so good, he can play with creases, try tempos, rests, and playfulness, and test ideas, and express what moves him as conductor and interpreter. Back then, he just spent all his time trying to make an orchestra sound good.

    All we have evolved to, which is a world class experience at a price that I have been willing to pay, is going to become a tragedy if the quality and the size diminish. So, I will have first rate space to get to a bar at intermission, but no first rate orchestra.

    It is about the conductors and the players, and me. That is what I pay for, and what I am entitled to.

    But I do not believe any of the major Boards across the country understand that this is also what I need. Jeff Ring

  4. rolferd

    R.E.S.P.EC.T. “just a little …” would go a long ways. It’s also hard to “negotiate” with immovable objects that insult you without reacting in an equal and opposite direction. I suspect if management and musicians said clearly and calmly what they needed and could live with, audience and other stake-holders would step up and show the needed financial support.

  5. Excellent blog post — thanks for taking the time to do this. Definitely reposting.

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