Whip It Good In Minnesota

I had the pleasure of chatting with Cathy Wurzer on Minnesota Public Radio’s Morning Edition to discuss the recent Minnesota Orchestra Association (MOA) and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (SPCO) labor disputes and what might be needed in order to bring about some positive change. Given the level of public rancor between each group and its respective musicians, it seems as though things are going to get worse before they get better.

You can listen the full interview at the MPR website (or via the audio player below) and they published a companion article as well.

It’s important to remember that in addition to swaying public opinion each stakeholder needs to keep their house in order and strengthen those colleague’s resolve. For the MOA, Thursday’s annual board meeting was a key event in that it was almost certainly an occasion for the current executive leadership to reaffirm their case and squash any seeds of dissent from blossoming into would-be board factions.

Historically, internal division among board members has a great deal of potential for derailing resolve which brings up an opportunity to take a peek behind the political curtain of orchestra bargaining.

Meet The Board Whip

Although certainly not an official board position, it isn’t unusual during hostile labor environments for an orchestra’s executive committee to rely on one or two members to serve as a sort of party whip. These individuals can be charged with maintaining communication between the full board membership and the executive committee; the latter of which is typically the driving force behind how inflexible a position an employer adopts during labor negotiations.

And just like their congressional counterparts, board whips that fail to maintain communication, maintain resolve, and marginalize voices of dissent between the long stretches of full board meetings risk overlooking discontent that, under the right circumstances, can grow into a full blow board coup.

Consequently, it is worth keeping an eye on the broader MOA board to see if Thursday’s annual meeting produces any change in the institution’s approach or simply more of the same hardliner stance.

In the end, the important thing to realize at this juncture is amid the fervor to maintain resolve, it is easy to inadvertently set in motion a self fulfilling prophecy that hastens the sort of scenario I described in my conversation with Cathy Wurzer.

“When it’s gotten to this level of animosity it’s not unusual for the dispute to become more about winning the fight than whatever the issues were to begin with – it becomes personal on both sides. And it’s very difficult for individuals in both stakeholder camps to step back from that. The thing I talk about a lot with clients in this situation is you have to find a way to provide an opportunity for both sides to save face with a solution, so that somebody doesn’t have to lose in order for someone else to win.”

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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1 thought on “Whip It Good In Minnesota”

  1. I like that you talk about “stakeholders” here, because there are many such groups. And yet you mention “both sides” – yes, I know that the immediate conflict is between the management and the musicians of each orchestra. Yet where is the acknowledgment of the audience and the smaller donors? The musicians at least are tuned in (if I may put it that way), and they are the ones providing at least a little music. Management seems to have decided that we are lower than a snake’s navel in terms of where we fit into the food chain.

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Whip It Good In Minnesota