What To Expect In Detroit

The 8/12/2010 edition of the Detroit Free Press published an article by Mark Stryker which reports the Detroit Symphony Orchestra  musicians have scheduled two self-produced concerts in September. Stryker correctly observes that this is an ominous sign regarding the potential for both sides to reach an agreement before the current contract expires on 8/29/2010 and if they don’t reach an agreement, here is what might happen…

Traditionally, one of two things will occur: both sides will agree to “play and talk” or there will be a work stoppage. However, we live in interesting times and one additional option that has popped up in recent years is the orchestra association can attempt to impose a new contract without requiring ratification from musicians. Here’s how each option breaks down.

Play and Talk

In this scenario, both sides agree to go on with scheduled events and activity while continuing to negotiate. Variables include written agreements stipulating the play and talk conditions such as whether or not the terms of the previous agreement continue unaltered until a new agreement is reached and/or imposing a new bargaining deadline.

Sometimes, both sides will agree to play and talk without any written agreement. Although there are pros and cons for both sides with this option, potential problems in this arrangement include fuzzy interpretation on whether or not certain work rules are in effect and whether or not either side can drop out of negotiations and implement a work stoppage at any point. If implemented shortsightedly, it can actual add more pressure than it was intended to release.

This option is used most frequently as it offers a pressure release for everyone involved although it does not guarantee any particular outcome. It is common for both sides to utilize the services of a mediator or arbitrator.

Work Stoppage

This option comes in two varieties; when musicians institute a work stoppage it is called a strike and when it is initiated by management it is called a lockout. It isn’t unusual for both sides to claim the other has initiated the work stoppage but the ultimate definition can be crucial when determining how the conflict is resolved. If the source of the work stoppage is indeed questioned, the matter is typically resolved by state and/or Federal authorities.

Regardless, under this option all scheduled events and activity will cease although both sides have been known to conduct ancillary concert action, like the type reported in Stryker’s article. For example, musicians can put on their own concerts and the association can turn into something of a presenter by bringing in performing arts acts, although these rarely include a full orchestra. It is most unusual to see an employer attempt to hire replacement musicians to carry on scheduled concert events.

While work stoppages were not uncommon from 1960s through 1990s, the extended duration and increased hostility between both sides meant even when one side won, everyone lost. As such, work stoppages are viewed less as a basic bargaining tool and more of an option of last resort (i.e. a solution of mass destruction). It is common for both sides to utilize the services of a mediator or arbitrator amidst a work stoppage.

Imposing A Contract

In this option, management will impose the terms of their last, best, and final offer (or a variation thereof). The claim here from management is that they are not initiating a lockout and musicians must report for contracted service duties, but under the terms of the imposed agreement.

This is arguably the most passive-aggressive option as it requires the musicians to either accept the offer or initiate a work stoppage by going on strike. However, other options include legal action that requires a judge to step in render a decision on whether or not an employer can enforce the terms of a contract.

Although this isn’t a new option within the realm of collective bargaining, it is one that has been on the rise within the field and has surfaced in a variety of configurations. Not unlike work stoppages, this option all but guarantees a resolution but at the cost of severely damaged labor relations that can have decades long impact on institutional growth, accomplishment, and workplace satisfaction (musicians and managers alike).

On a broader outlook, the passive-aggressive qualities with imposing a contract can exacerbate factions within the opposing side and bring about a resolution sooner than later. Additionally, this option typically denies musicians the only legally certified avenue they have for influencing strategic decision making; specifically, the collective bargaining process. However, the option exists as it can be seen as a method for bringing about a favorable result without disrupting scheduled events and activity.

Ultimately, imposing a contract is a high-risk option that carries a number of variables that are beyond control of either side. Consequently, its volatile nature makes this a dangerous option as outcomes are not dissimilar from the “solution of mass destruction” nature inherent with work stoppages.

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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