Nothing’s Changed, It’s Still All About Power

One of the most common questions coming in from readers, colleagues, and friends about the Minnesota Orchestra dispute is why; people are befuddled over why things have become this bad and why there’s no apparent end in sight. The answer is simple and it has little to do with budgets, sustainability, competitiveness, excellence, or any of the other jargon grenades lobbed back and forth in the now all-too-predictable press statements. This fight is all about power.

ADAPTISTRATION-GUY-089In fact, we examined this very issue all the way back on December 5, 2012 when the dispute was in its comparative infancy. Since then, absolutely nothing has changed.

As we approach the next critical waypoint in the Minnesota Orchestra’s dispute, it is worth reaffirming what the power play is all about by reexamining key pints from last December’s post.

Publicly, the labor dispute is about money, revenue vs. expenses; but those battles aren’t exactly new in the field and historically, money fights tend to get settled before reaching levels such as those at the MOA. Instead, this appears to be far more about the decades old struggle over control and if the MOA’s end game is rooted in this old school power play, then don’t expect things to get better before they get worse.

In order to provide more detail, I want to reach back to a TEDx presentation I had the privilege of delivering on 5/7/2011 on labor relations and the arts. Specifically, the section on labor disputes and control does a good job at summing up the current quagmire in Minneapolis; for example, take the following excerpt and ask yourself if it is applicable to the MOA labor dispute.

[The field needs to] stop pretending that we’re not fighting over what we’ve been fighting over for decades: control. Employers want to be able to tell the artists what to do, when to do it, and how to get it done without any restrictions or feeling like they’re being held hostage to every last artist whim.

Artists want wage and benefits guarantees along with parameters placed on working conditions.

Unfortunately, it’s become fashionable to take our fights over control and package them in boxes marked community engagement, structural deficits, artistic parity, or whatever jargon du jour is all the rage. In the end, regardless of how the fight settles, the core struggle over control continues to simmer. Even during periods of intense economic stress, we manage to find ways to interject unrelated control issues into a process as cut and dry as emergency wage concessions.

Talk about making a bad situation worse, it’s almost as though some in the field are compelled to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

In order to build a healthy labor relationship, both sides need to realize the struggle over control is expected and each individual organization will only find a sustainable balance between extremes once they abandon the goal of obtaining dominant control in the relationship.


You can read the complete presentation along with the accompanying slides in the Adaptistration post from 5/11/2011.

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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6 thoughts on “Nothing’s Changed, It’s Still All About Power

  1. Wow, this nails it. That’s the frustrating part of this horrible lockout, that the MOA doesn’t want to solve anything, they just want total control and start with dictating terms from the outset. Any compromise seems to run counter to their overall scheme of breaking down the musicians in to a desperate and pliable body of fungible employees like they were a telemarketing pool.

    • Hi Andrew, I remember when you were practicing your trumpet on the other side of the block! I always knew you were smart, and your response certainly shows it!

  2. I don’t see ‘control’ as having much to do with the Minnesota Orchestra Lock-out at all. The debate in MN (as it was in Detroit) is over the definition and mission of an orchestra. The MOA wishes to take “The Minnesota Orchestra” and make it “An Orchestra in Minnesota,” and the musicians are fighting that.

    Orchestral musicians’ need for control is narrowly limited to 1) input and veto power over recordings/media, and 2) the definition and scope of their work.

    The Minnesota Orchestra situation is about money and the snake-oil of a ‘new model,’ as all the recent orchestra labor disputes have been. Certain managements have elected to put their energies into marking down the price of orchestral musicians in the marketplace, because they are either too lazy or inept to innovate in the areas of fund-raising and selling tickets.

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