As of this writing (October 2), attempts to negotiate a new contract for the musicians of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra have failed, and the musicians have announced a strike date of October 4. The orchestra had been working under the terms of a three-year agreement negotiated in 2007. That agreement contained some concessions in the first two years and, in its third year, a return to Detroit’s traditional ranking among the top ten U.S. orchestras.
Like many orchestras, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra has suffered from the recession which followed the collapse of financial markets in late 2008. Detroit’s regional economy was especially hard hit, and the DSO budget faced reduced individual and particularly corporate contributions, a decline in endowment investments, and lower ticket sales. Despite their strong concerns about management shortcomings—most notably rapid turnover in the crucial development department and a poorly structured and budget-straining bond arrangement on the 2003 expansion of Orchestra Hall—DSO musicians attempted to respond to management’s request to reopen the contract in early 2009. In many American orchestras that time frame saw reopened or new contracts that called for some relief for managements in the form of pay freezes or modest cuts, followed by recovery. A series of discussions in 2009 with a newly elected DSO negotiating committee did not lead to any agreement because management would not discuss anything beyond cuts during the term of the existing collective bargaining agreement.
Spring 2010 saw the beginning of contract talks on a “normal” calendar. It soon became clear that management was seeking to go far beyond saving money to try to completely reshape the orchestra. The musicians’ negotiating team, including counsel Leonard Leibowitz and Local 5 President Gordon Stump, recognized the gravity of the situation by making successively lower offers. Their last offer includes a 22 percent pay cut for the first year and limited recovery. Management placed two offers on the table. Proposal A called for a 28 percent pay cut along with benefit cutbacks, freezing of the orchestra’s defined benefit pension plan and withdrawal from the AFM-EPF pension plan, and three weeks of service conversion (teaching, small group performance, and even library work for scale). Proposal A was withdrawn by management when the musicians did not accept it by August 28. Proposal B, now management’s only offer, is considerably worse. It includes a 33 percent pay cut for existing members, a two-tier wage system with new hires coming in at $61,200 (42 percent lower than previous scale), the same pension and benefit losses, unlimited service conversion throughout the entire season, very deep cuts for the orchestra’s two librarians, and the elimination of the peer review committee for tenured musicians who are non-renewed. Management declared an impasse this past week and said it would implement Proposal B on September 24. The musicians responded by filing unfair labor charges with the NLRB on the grounds that management created an impasse by refusing to bargain in good faith. The strike date of October 4 would have seen the first rehearsals of the new season, with Music Director Leonard Slatkin.
League of American Orchestras President Jesse Rosen has made at least two recent visits to meet with DSO management. It appears that the financial crunch in Detroit is viewed as the opportunity to implant service conversion, a long-held goal of some orchestra managers, into a major orchestra contract for the first time. At the negotiating table, management has admitted that many current orchestra members may choose to retire or leave rather than work under their proposal. They believe that younger players will come to Detroit for these working conditions and salary, at least for a few years. Paul Hogle, the newly hired executive vice president of the DSO, wrote recently of management’s desire to transform “the DSO into a reinvented model for our industry.” He continued, “If we get it right, that new model can be THE destination many conservatory superstars (not to mention stars from other national and international ensembles) intentionally seek out because … the working conditions will be dynamic and entrepreneurial.”
For more than two months the musicians of the DSO have been conducting a public campaign to call attention to this situation. While they obviously feel that some contract concessions are necessary, they believe that management’s proposal would irreparably damage the quality of the orchestra as many members left for other places and auditions failed to attract musicians of the same high level. The orchestra members have grave concerns about the tenure of Executive Director Anne Parsons. Her six years in Detroit have seen plummeting morale among orchestra and staff and accelerating departures from both groups. More about the musicians of the DSO and the current crisis can be found at the detroitsymphonymusicians.org website. As a part of their ongoing efforts to inform the DSO Board and the public about what is at stake, orchestra members are organizing a concert series. Two performances in September saw sold-out houses; dates scheduled for October include appearances by principal cellist Robert deMaine and guest conductor and violinist Joseph Silverstein.
ICSOM members can expect to read bulletins to keep them updated on the developing situation. The members of the DSO are extremely grateful to ICSOM, ROPA, the AFM, and Local 5 for their help in recent weeks, including the welcome presence of AFM President Ray Hair, ICSOM Chairperson Bruce Ridge, President Brian Rood, and Secretary Laura Ross along with DSO members at the head of Detroit’s Labor Day parade.
[Editor’s Note: Detroit musicians went on strike October 4. Donations, along with letters of support, should be sent to the DSO Members Fund; c/o Susan Barna Ayoub, Secretary-Treasurer; Detroit Federation of Musicians; 20833 Southfield Rd.; Detroit, MI 48075.]