Where Things Stand In Detroit

As last ditch, multi-mediator facilitated bargaining sessions between the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) and their musicians failed to produce a settlement over the weekend, the organization crossed the first major benchmark in contentious labor disputes. In this case, DSO management decided to abandon play and talk bargaining in favor of implementing their last, best, and final offer and in response, the musicians announced they are going on strike starting Monday, October 4, 2010…

There are numerous articles in mainstream newspapers covering the details of this weekend’s bargaining sessions (Detroit Free Press, Detroit News, and Associated Press) but according to press statements from the DSO and its musicians, here’s where things stand:

  • Musicians claim that management is unwilling to bargain in good faith even though they maintain they are willing to agree to concessions beyond their current offer, but only if management follows suit.
  • Management claims that they are willing to reconsider terms but only within a zero sum context of their current offer.
  • Musicians filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) claiming the zero sum tactic is tantamount to failing to bargain in good faith. Management responded by claiming that is merely a sign that both sides have reached good faith impasse.
  • Musicians claim that management has informed them that their medical, dental, vision, life, long term disability, and instrument insurances will be cancelled even though the musicians have said they are willing to pay 100% of the premiums out of pocket until the conflict is resolved. There is no public response from management on this point.
  • Musicians claim that management is threatening them legal action if they publicize self produced benefit concerts and “telling their side of the story” at their website.
  • Management has confirmed that they are implementing the terms of their last, best, final offer in advance of their opening classical series concert on October 8, 2010.

So far, with the exception of management implementing their last, best, and final offer in lieu of locking out the musicians, this labor disagreement has followed a very traditional path. However, if musician claims regarding cancelled insurances are accurate (the DSO has yet to respond to requests for confirmation and/or additional details), that stage is arriving much earlier than usual and could be a signal that the disagreement will deteriorate much quicker than usual.

Currently, all signs indicate that neither side is going to give in quickly as was the case in Cleveland when that orchestra’s management moved from their last, best, and final offer to the point of settlement one day following a musician strike. If the DSO is indeed planning to cancel all insurances and go to the effort to take legal action against the musicians for engaging in promotion of self produced concerts, then that’s another strong indication that the work stoppage will become a conflict of attrition.

To date and when compared to previous conflicts over the past decade at other large budget orchestras, the DSO has been particularly short on details and has not been as aggressive in promoting their position. On the musicians’ side, they have approached the situation in typical fashion, using traditional talking points and coming out of the gate with a great deal of enthusiastic solidarity.

At the same time, musician resolve and solidarity are typically key factors in the outcome of extraordinarily contentious labor disagreements. And in the case of the DSO vs. their musicians, it isn’t the least bit unusual to think that the work stoppage could last months or even the entire season without resolve provided the musicians are unsuccessful with their NLRB complaints or can no longer literally afford to remain on strike.

We’ll examine some more benchmarks and likely outcomes associated with work stoppages of this magnitude when/if the strike begins on October 4, 2010.

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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4 thoughts on “Where Things Stand In Detroit

  1. I believe that a settlement will be made on Oct. 5. Why? Both sides have too much to lose. Certainly management can reach for the middle ground and throw in a new CEO to sweeten the deal.

  2. How palatable would a base salary scale along the lines of Atlanta, Houston, and St. Louis–mid 70’s to low 80’s from now thourgh 2013ish be?

    It’s not as generous as the musician’s proposal nor as draconian as the management’s propsal.

  3. I certain;y don’t speak on behalf of the musicians and I don’t know how they would reply to that question. But I would say that at this point in the dispute, base pay levels in and of themselves are no longer a mutually exclusive deal breaker.

    The sweeping changes in work rules, musician job descriptions, and stakeholder input are much too large to ignore and would easily impact the artistic output and standing of the organization as much as base pay levels.

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