Detroit in the Crosshairs

by Haden Mckay, Detroit Symphony Orchestra

Click here to see the article on the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians Website

On April 9, 2011 the musicians of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra returned to the stage of Orchestra Hall for the first of two triumphant concerts. Just one day earlier, a vote to ratify the DSO’s new four-year contract had brought an official end to one of the longest strikes in North American orchestra history. Readers of Senza Sordino and visitors to the website detroitsymphonymusicians.org are already well aware of the past year’s events in the Motor City. The six-month work stoppage took a painful toll on the members of the orchestra and their families as well as Detroit’s music lovers, and the future of the venerable institution is far from assured. At the same time, the members of the DSO hope that their struggle will have done more than just help one orchestra survive a crisis. Ideally, symphony boards and managements everywhere seeking to tame deficits will draw valuable lessons from Detroit about what not to do.

While blessed with an outstanding concert hall and proud musical traditions, the Detroit Symphony had historically faced financial challenges as it maintained top-ten status in the United States. When the world financial crisis hit in 2008, the DSO was already weakened by a narrowing of its donor base, declining ticket revenue and the burden of real estate debt from its 2003 hall expansion. Management asked to reopen the orchestra’s contract during 2009, but discussions broke down when management refused to consider an agreement with any extension in term or even partial recovery of givebacks. The stage was set for a confrontation upon contract expiration in August 2010.

Given the magnitude of the economic downturn in Detroit, musicians knew that they would need to sacrifice to keep the DSO viable. The fundamental problem in what played out—and what turned a concessionary contract negotiation into a conflagration—was the decision of the DSO board and management to use the crisis to try to impose sweeping changes on the institution and working life of the musicians. At various times in the negotiations the musicians were confronted with proposals to eliminate tenure, remove the librarians from the bargaining unit, hire and retain new musicians at sharply lower wages, remove orchestra representatives from board committees, freeze the orchestra’s pension plan while withdrawing from theAFM-DPF plan, perform unlimited free media services, and institute an extreme version of service conversion (developed without any musician input although a comprehensive strategic plan had just been jointly written and adopted) up to and including assignment to non-musical duties for weekly scale.

Predictably, DSO members were unified in their opposition to such tactics. They saw a threat not only to their own institution and working lives, but to professional musicians everywhere. Once the strike began on October 4, 2010, the musicians attracted public attention and support from Detroit and far beyond. Most observers seemed to realize that too-drastic cuts, especially combined with harmful changes which didn’t even address the money problems, would make it impossible to retain and attract the top musicians who would ensure the DSO‘s continued high quality. With the help of generous guest conductors and soloists, the musicians organized and performed more than twenty successful concerts in and around Detroit. Local music lovers made contributions and formed a powerful audience advocacy group, Save Our Symphony, which is still very active post-settlement. Overwhelming financial contributions from fellow professional musicians, largely ICSOM, OCSM and ROPA members, made a huge difference in enabling DSO members to continue their struggle. President Gordon Stump and Secretary-Treasurer Sue Barna-Ayoub of Local 5 provided unhesitating and seamless support.

Meanwhile, the bargaining process itself was at a near standstill. Despite the expertise of Counsel Leonard Leibowitz and attempts to assist from community leaders and politicians such as Governor Jennifer Granholm and Senator Carl Levin, months passed without any progress. In the end, the involvement of business leaders Dan Gilbert and Matt Cullen seemed to break the deadlock, and a tentative agreement was reached on April 3. Of course, by then most of the season had been lost and millions of dollars in ticket revenue refunded to patrons. Several orchestra members had taken other positions. Trust within the institution had been badly damaged.

The new DSO contract is detailed in an ICSOM settlement bulletin. While it is deeply concessionary, the agreement does not contain any of the proposals from management’s grab bag listed above. It is frustrating to realize that without those unreasonable demands, the entire strike and its fallout could probably have been avoided. Essentially, the bargaining team spent the better part of a year fighting off changes that should never have been put on the table. The DSO musicians were glad to ratify the agreement and to bring their utmost professionalism back to the stage. The future will bring continued challenges. One major goal will be to bring about greater board understanding of how to preserve and enhance a great symphony orchestra.

The musicians of the DSO owe a great debt of thanks to their fellow ICSOM members and leaders, as well as the national AFM officers who provided support at key moments. We are honored to be the host orchestra of the 2011 ICSOM Conference this August and look forward to meeting many friends and colleagues.


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