Mongo Only Pawn In Game Of Life

It was sad to read the news out of Minnesota yesterday in the 5/9/2012 edition of the Star-Tribune where an article by Graydon Royce reports that the Minnesota Orchestra (MO) has eliminated nine full-time administrative positions and laid off seven part-time administrative employees.

your moveThe cuts apparently coincide with the orchestra’s anticipated departure from Orchestra Hall during renovations but it is tough to miss the fact that they also fall amidst tense collective bargaining agreement negotiations. The MO board leadership has already made it clear that they intend to secure a sharply concessionary contract.

Besides, a statement from MO president and CEO Michael Henson asserts that the board intends to ask the union “for the same expense commitments that we’ve asked from the staff.”

If you’ll indulge a bit of editorializing on my part, these sort of statements always strike me as being entirely unfair to the employees who end up with their collective necks on the chopping block.

Does anyone really believe that managers and staffers who get sacked during these sorts of circumstances do so willingly? Did these MO staffers have the option of saying “no” if they were indeed asked to be part of an expense commitment? Of course not; and I’m not asserting they should, but we do need to be more respectful when it comes to phrasing.

In a broader sense, putting those cuts into place while negotiations are underway is not always necessary. Ideally, if an institution is heading into what everyone realizes will be a concessionary bargaining cycle, it makes far more sense to wait and finalize any cuts until after an agreement is reached. After all, the board won’t know exactly what the strategic income/expense landscape is until that point anyway.

So please, can we as a field, just this once, endure a labor conflict without using staffers like pawns to leverage concessions out of other stakeholders?

Every time this scenario pops up, it reminds me of that classic line from Blazing Saddles where enforcer-turned-protector Mongo reflects on his role within a larger, master plan.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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0 thoughts on “Mongo Only Pawn In Game Of Life

  1. Well said Drew (and I love the Mongo video).

    As soon as I heard about these cuts I thought “uh oh.” The ulterior motive behind these cuts seems blatantly obvious, and the apples and oranges comparison made by the MO CEO holds no water as you point out.

    I feel badly for those staffers. It’s almost as if the CEO is saying “OK now, I cut off my nose in spite of my face. Here is the knife, now it’s your turn.”

  2. Well, sometimes cuts do need to happen, even though it hurts those involved most, and also those left behind with more work and lowered morale. I’ve no idea the particulars of this case, but I certainly don’t have enough information to second guess the management.

    Except I agree that they should have waited. There is no rule that requires the musicians to respond to a unilateral and largely irrevocable concession from management with one of their own. The musicians could easily respond, “So?”

  3. No arguments there, cuts are a part of the field. It’s just always a shame to see those who have no control end up becoming part of an overall negotiating tactic. This would be a particularly good topic for executive and governance ethics guidelines.

  4. This is not a new negotiating tactic. It was openly used by management in our last negotiations (for a major Midwest orchestra). The line went something to the effect that “We’ve been responsible making cuts in our own management/staff size and salary – what are you going to do to show that same level of commitment to the organization?”

    Even though our performances, playing level, and reviews had been glowing both at home and on tours, management said that that part really didn’t matter. It was truly a reprehensible, inflammatory tactic and took a lot of cooling down on the negotiating committee’s part to continue to believe that bargaining was being done in good faith.

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