Column, 651 words

The Day the Music Stopped

A banker's squeeze-play has silenced an entire orchestra.

Sam Pizzigati

What do bank executives who make $19 million a year do in their spare time? The same thing they do in their executive suites. They squeeze America’s middle class.

That’s not, of course, what the flacks at U.S. Bancorp, the nation’s fifth-largest bank, will tell you. They’ll say the CEO of their Minneapolis-based banking giant, Richard Davis, graciously gives up some of his spare time to serve on the board of the nationally renowned Minnesota Orchestra.

Pizzigati-Music-taberandrew

taberandrew/Flickr

True enough. But CEO Davis brings to that board much more than a fondness for fugues. He brings the same corporate executive arrogance that has shoved labor’s share of the nation’s economic output down to modern-day record lows.

This redistribution — from worker to boss — has been rushing ahead now for over three decades. Since 1980, as analyst David Cay Johnston notes, “corporate pre-tax profits have grown at almost twice the rate of pre-tax wages.”

What’s driving this massive redistribution? A relentless corporate offensive to minimize labor bargaining power by any means necessary. Including “lockouts.”

Richard Davis chairs the negotiating committee at the non-profit group responsible for the Minnesota Orchestra. This past October 1, Davis and his fellow corporate managers who run the nonprofit “locked out” the orchestra’s musicians, who had refused to accept a contract offer that would have cut their pay by up to 50 percent.

Ever since then, the Minnesota Orchestra’s symphony musicians have gone without salary, health insurance, and pension contributions — the basic building blocks of middle class security.

These musicians aren’t striking. Quite the contrary. They offered to keep working while bargaining negotiations continued. They also offered to submit “to impartial, final, and binding arbitration under the guidance of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.”

Davis and his friends rejected these offers. They chose instead to keep the musicians from working — and to wait for them to cave.

Back in America’s middle class golden age, such managerial behavior would have been unthinkable. In the 1950s and 1960s, any corporate chiefs who locked out workers in a labor dispute would become pariahs in their communities, the sort of shady, suspect operators prestigious non-profit organizations would never embrace.

But elite attitudes toward lockouts started changing in 1975, when an ostensibly liberal pillar of the business community, Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, replaced striking workers with “replacement workers” and lived to tell the tale. Six years later, a newly elected conservative President, Ronald Reagan, fired and replaced striking air traffic controllers.

A new anything-goes corporate management approach to labor relations soon took hold.

Lockouts would become simply another option in the modern American management toolkit — and the federal regulator created to safeguard the right to good-faith collective bargaining, the National Labor Relations Board, would prove too feeble to offer up much resistance.

U.S. Bancorp’s Davis probably expected a quick and easy victory when his lockout began. But the musicians have hung tough, buoyed by widespread community support. Still, the hostile environment that management has created has taken a toll. About a quarter of the orchestra’s 98 musicians have taken jobs elsewhere or retired.

“This lockout is destroying the Minnesota Orchestra, musician by musician by musician,” viola player Sam Bergman told the audience at one benefit concert late in April.

Richard Davis personally took home $18.8 million in 2010 for his banking executive labors, several million dollars more than the annual wage and benefit cost of the entire Minnesota Orchestra. Since becoming Bancorp’s CEO, he’s averaged about $10 million annually.

Imperial CEOs like Davis owe their grand fortunes, in large part, to the grand squeeze American workers have suffered over the last generation. These execs have been squeezing so long, the Minnesota Orchestra lockout suggests, that they simply can’t operate any other way.

Even music, turns out, cannot soothe the savage beast.

Aficionados of fine music — and advocates for a more equal America — can now support the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra online.

OtherWords columnist Sam Pizzigati is an Institute for Policy Studies associate fellow. His latest book is The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class. OtherWords.org

  • Johnny Dollar

    If you make your living with strings, drums, or horns, isn’t it easy enough to move on? Of course it is. The Rolling Stones have been doing it for 50 years and I haven’t heard that they are hurting for money. The writer even indicates roughly 25% of the orchestra has gone elsewhere or retired. No problem. Sell some tickets elsewhere.

    • Regina

      I do not quite understand your point. Are you saying that these musicians should happily move away from the community they’ve put down roots in? How does your Rolling Stones analogy fit this situation, other than glibly imply all musicians make an easy living?

      • Johnny Dollar

        To paraphrase Bob Dylan, if you don’t understand, it’s not my problem.

        • Regina

          It does.

          • Johnny Dollar

            Bravo!

  • Ellen

    It is said that board chairman Jon Campbell doesn’t even care for orchestral music. What a great choice for leadership! They are charged with stewardship of this precious gem of our community…and look what’s happening to it.

  • Regina

    Well. Haven’t they just got so much to be proud of: driving away musicians, lowering expectations all around, aiming for fewer seats sold per season, threatening the relationship with Osmo, causing commentary throughout the industry (that’s NEGATIVE commentary, dear board, you should read a bit of it)…
    How’s the renovation of Orchestra Hall coming along? All on time? At budget? It’s harder to find updates now. Hope everything’s going well: the Hall is all they care about.

    • Ellen

      Have you been by it recently?
      I wouldn’t call it “beautiful” exactly…unless corporate glass-n-gray is to your taste.

    • Johnny Dollar

      Who cares about Osmo? Sarah is the really hot conductor!

  • Pam Kennedy

    They should just form a new orchestra, with a board that will actually provide stewardship. I’d support that, over these people in their shiny hall with the “sustainable future.”