Lessons from the lockout

Guest Commentary

Volume 114, No. 3March, 2014

Marcia Peck


Musicians in the Minnesota Orchestra recently won a contract after being locked out for 16 months. The lessons learned were hard-won, but worth passing on to others.

Musicians in the Minnesota Orchestra recently won a contract after being locked out for 16 months. The lessons learned were hard-won, but worth passing on to others.

We are back to work, at last. As most of you know, the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra recently endured a 16-month lockout. The unprecedented length and severity of the lockout taught us some important lessons, which I’d like to share with our brothers and sisters in New York City.

For more than a year, management had sought cuts of 30 to 50 percent in our wages. Our final, three-year agreement calls for a total pay cut averaging about 12.5 percent. Of course, a pay cut is no one’s idea of a victory, but for us it represents a point from which we can start to rebuild an orchestra that has been devastated by the destructive policies of the orchestra’s management and board leadership. We believe we stood for excellence and that our stand will prove a bulwark against similar attempts by other orchestra managements to devalue the art.

Also in our new contract, we now have a guaranteed minimum number of classical subscription-type weeks. On the flip side, musicians will contribute more to the cost of health insurance. And we agreed to about 12 work rule changes. (Management had not deviated from their insistence on more than 200 changes, so we viewed whittling them down to 12 as a limited success.)

Here are some of the things – by no means a comprehensive list – that we learned.

We organized ourselves. The orchestra’s Negotiating Committee (an elected committee separate from our Members’ Committee) took charge of the contract negotiation process and we organized, organized, organized. We formed a number of subcommittees well before the lockout began. We were able to get our web site ( up and running, group photos and headshots taken, and a P.R. firm hired months before our contract expired. Everything takes time: getting enough content to make the web site worth visiting regularly, establishing a voice and tone, and determining P.R. needs. By the end of the lockout, we had 13 subcommittees doing everything from P.R. and logistics to concert planning, fundraising, and handling merchandise. Everyone was involved.

Fighting takes a great deal of financial support. Our union (AFM Local 30-73) paid our legal fees, which was no mean feat during a lockout that lasted 16 months. But this was no ordinary fight, and we needed to be able to cover extraordinary expenses. Part of our funding came from our orchestra committee. (Musicians in the Minnesota Orchestra pay dues not just to our own local, but also to our committee.) And after the lockout began, we set up a new, nonprofit organization to solicit donations from the public. We worked to develop personal relationships with donors, large and small, and established a reliable system for acknowledging gifts. Most important, orchestras and unions across the country (including Local 802) sent their staunch and very generous support, without which we never could have withstood the forces against us. Expenses ranged from retention of a P.R. consultant to printed materials and programs, from hall rentals to honorariums and travel expenses for guest artists (many returned their honorariums), from concert promotion to T-shirts and buttons, from graphic design to hardship loans for musicians.

Watch what you say to the media. The mainstream media rarely gets it right. Know how to talk to the media. In our case, our P.R. consultant prepared our spokespeople. Remember, don’t try to negotiate your contract through the press. This seems like a no-brainer, but not everyone plays by the same rules, and this one went out the window when the other side dumped the entire contract language into the local newspaper.

Don’t react when attacked.” This P.R. advice stood us in good stead. We always strived to drive the news ourselves rather than to react to management attacks.

Acknowledge mistakes and move on. For example, our original P.R. firm was not the right fit for us, as we quickly realized we needed someone with good political connections as well.

Take the high road. Not everyone may agree with us on this, but we believe the payoff is enormous. Because we took the high road and didn’t drag our enemies through the mud, and because for us the fight was all about preserving quality for the community, we are now hailed as heroes. We had lots of vocal supporters who happily slung plenty of mud, but we ourselves posted nothing on our web site or on Facebook that we would ever need to apologize for. We were courteous to detractors. We always strove to keep the focus on great music and the community that was now also locked out.

Everyone must pitch in. We had no idea that the lockout would last 16 months. We began with a single gala concert intended to galvanize our supporters and embarrass management. Eventually, we produced more than 30 concerts with star conductors and guest artists that reached over 30,000 people. That was a lot of heavy lifting. What began with a fledgling web site gradually became a powerhouse P.R. committee, tracking press, replying to fans and critics, writing in-depth web content, and promoting concerts. Everyone has something to contribute, whether providing cookies for rehearsal or cataloguing letters of support, proofreading programs or compiling a photographic history. Spouses played a huge role; they contributed their talents in graphic design and education, they fundraised, managed personnel, moved merchandise – the list goes on and on.

Keep in touch and shore up the weakest members! For us, this meant weekly meetings for all musicians who were in town. We eventually invited the families of musicians to attend portions of those meetings, since we recognized that families were also deeply affected by the lockout.

Take full advantage of public services. We developed a close relationship with Working Partnerships, a local agency that provides assistance to union households experiencing financial hardship. It managed our hardship fund so that musicians could apply and receive aid anonymously. Working Partnerships also provided invaluable counseling on any number of issues and available services, from debt consolidation to food stamps to medical assistance. Our local credit union also offered customized services.

Have patience. Things take time. It took time for our message to break through the board-controlled press, time for the legislators’ initiatives to have an effect, time for the community to begin to speak up.

Be respectful, even kind, with each other. This probably goes without saying, but is hard when everyone is under a huge amount of stress. Our colleagues asked questions without criticizing, shared ideas, helped each other (often anonymously) and stuck together.

Have a little fun. Throughout the 16 months, we got together for potlucks, entertained our blind superfan from Japan, developed an appreciation for gallows humor, held a naming contest for the local Belgian-style beer brewed for the lockout by a local micro-brewery. (LOMoMO Palooza by Boom Island Brewery. It’s great!) And one musician had his car wrapped in our signature apple-green color, complete with writing and music. It’s the most visible car in the Twin Cities.

Strive to keep communication lines open, both before and during negotiations. This may not be under your control, as it certainly wasn’t in our case. However, to whatever extent you can, keep talking to any management contacts you have – including rank-and-file board members and staff – about common goals. It is important to remember that most board members really are well-meaning volunteers. This is not their livelihood, and they are not nearly as well-versed or engaged in our day-to-day jobs as we are. The more they can be brought along into our artistic vision and the things that are necessary in order to see that vision become reality, the better the chances of our orchestras avoiding the complete imbalance between art and finance that ours has recently suffered. Communication is no guarantee, but it can make a difference. It was back-channel conversations that finally paved the way to our settlement. Reasonable partners can be cultivated in unpredictable places.

People matter. Institutions are guided by the personalities, values and character of the people who sit in the seats of power. As a result, the damage to our orchestra was immeasurable. High-power boards have incestuous ties to powerful tools, including money, media and government. But musicians have ties to powerful tools as well: each other. And in a strange way, the intensity of management’s hostility towards the musicians made us stronger, because we stuck together.

I hope these lessons will be useful to other musicians who may be faced with a grueling battle like this. (And I hope none of you will ever be in our shoes!) We are enormously grateful to all the orchestras and unions that came to our aid. We are grateful to the AFM and ICSOM, to our own AFM Local 30-73, and to all the people with big hearts in those institutions and all over the musical world.

Marcia Peck is a cellist in the Minnesota Orchestra and served on the musicians’ negotiating committee.