To Strike Or Not To Strike

When the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) mess started to unfold, it seemed as though we wouldn’t have to have some of the rudimentary conversations that typically accompany work stoppages, such as the purpose of strikes and lockouts within the context of the orchestra business. As it turns out, we do…

Two recent articles in major newspapers chastising the DSO musicians for going on strike during a period of substantial economic downturn in the Metro Detroit area completely and utterly fail to get the point. The first article, by Terry Teachout, appeared in the 9/18/2010 edition of the Wall Street Journal and the second is an editorial in the 9/30/2010 edition of the Detroit News.

Teachout writes:

“But the players’ decision to respond to the orchestra’s financial crisis by voting to strike is a classic symptom of the cultural-entitlement mentality—the assumption that artists ought to be paid what they “deserve” to make, even when the community in which they live and work places a significantly lower value on their services. Any economist can tell you what has happened: In Detroit, being a classical instrumentalist is no longer an upper-middle-class job.”

The Detroit News editorial strikes a similar tone (no pun intended):

“Based on their musical skill and talents, the DSO musicians are among the best in the nation and are valued by the community.

But the argument about whether Detroit deserves a world class orchestra, as measured by musician pay, is pointless. The money is no longer there to sustain current costs.”

All things being equal, those positions sound perfectly reasonable but things in this business are usually far from equal. Case in point, the very same point of view were expressed about the Cleveland Orchestra work stoppage when those musicians decided to strike (Cleveland is a shell of its former self, economic reality, you’ll gut the orchestra, etc.). Consequently, the one day strike ultimately pulled both sides close enough to reach an agreement and all of the pontificating about economic reality and artistic sacrilege turned out to be dead wrong.

What needs to be considered here is how a strike factors into the orchestra field differently than in other businesses and it all boils down to stakeholdership. At the core of this concept is recognizing that within the nonprofit governance model the board, as stewards of public trust, retain complete and undisputed authority to make any and all strategic decisions.

Traditionally, orchestra musicians have quantified artistic excellence within the context of strategic decision making via items such as season length, compensation and benefits, programming, audition processes, touring guidelines, tenure, peer review, etc. Since all of those items can be directly influenced via collective bargaining terms, the negotiation process and the resulting bargaining agreement undoubtedly influences the strategic planning process.

Without those contractual obligations, the only other options to influence the process are defined entirely by trust. Clearly, trust is an increasingly rare element among the DSO’s natural resources.

As a result, the only avenue orchestra musicians have to influence strategic decision making that goes beyond trust is the legally enforceable language resulting from the collective bargaining process.

In the end, the days of using work stoppages as commonplace tools within the negotiation toolbox are long gone. Consequently, attributing those decisions to the mindset of the stereotypical greedy employee or brutish employer caricature only serves to demonstrate a fundamental lack of knowledge about this business and its professionals.

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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10 thoughts on “To Strike Or Not To Strike”

  1. Having been on negotiating committees that have gone to the brink a few times, I know that no one takes the idea of a strike lightly. Even viewed in the best light it’s a no win situation for both sides. Unfortunately, in the life of an orchestral musician, the only time we have any possibility of getting a management to really listen to,or act on our ideas is during the negotiating process- with the understanding that if we are not taken seriously there may be a work stoppage.

    While musician pay is certainly an important issue( and I can attest that the Minnesota Orchestra’s pay relative to our peer orchestras has dropped substantially since the early “90’s) musicians are increasingly concerned about the artistic direction orchestras are taking- this focus seems to have been lost on many managements that are more concerned about cutting to the quick and abandoning artistic goals. Part of the job of a creative management is to make the public understand the importance of art in society and why it needs to be supported. Yes it’s difficult, but so is playing the violin (or bassoon or…..)

    The best evidence that musicians are as interested and supportive of the idea artistic excellence is the standing ovation that Michael Kaiser got at the 2009 ICSOM conference. He spoke do the concept that fundraising success follows a strong artistic vision and that you can’t cut your way to financial health.

    The musicians of the Detroit Symphony are at the forefront of an assault on the the notion that being an orchestral musician is a viable profession. The musician’s offer shows an incredible willingness to understand the reality of the Michigan economy. I can imagine what a difficult thing it was for them to get to that point. If their management( and the League) is successful is gutting their contract we should be prepared for the same tactics in cities that are not nearly in the same economic situation as Detroit.

    And I totally agree with your ideas about trust- after 30 some years in this business I wish that I could say that I’ve seen more of it- in my experience it has broken down when managements exert heavy handed judgements without really involving the musicians- the 3 years between contract negotiations can provide the many opportunities for trust to be broken. Then you have musicians who feel powerless and have no recourse until the next bargaining sessions.

    Norbert Nielubowski
    Minnesota Orchestra

  2. Drew and Norbert-all I can say is thank you for some objective reporting.

    I just read the New York Times piece where
    a) they stated we have 2 African Americans in our Orchestra when we have 3-for many years and 4 if you include the orchestra fellow

    b) they stated the average income in Michigan has gone down 21.3% but failed to notice the musicians have offered a paycut of 22% (let alone the managements proposal of 33% along with lots of other stuff the demotes the job).

    Seems reporters don’t dig or look a little further past the surface now days-there is lots of stuff to find if they would look a little deeper..

    Geof Applegate
    Principal Seconds Violin, Detroit Symphony Orchestra

  3. What am I missing?

    1) the article states there are only two African Americans in the orchestra when in fact there are 3 for many,many years plus an always orchestra fellow making the total count 4…


    2) the management states that the average income in Detroit has gone down 21.3% yet the reporter doesn’t correlate or ask the question of the management that the musicians have offered a 22% paycut and also offered to negotiate further….

    Am I missing something? Don’t enquiring minds want to know more?
    There is much more-maybe for 60 mintues?..

    • What it means is you don’t know whether the reporter – who has a name: Dan Wakin – asked those questions or not and if so, whether or not it got cut out in editing. To blame the reporter when this is the first major piece he’s written on the strike is simply unjustified. There is a big difference between simply asking those very legitimate questions yourself and including unfounded accusations against a reporter in your comment. The former is thoughtful observation while the latter is perhaps best characterized as unnecessary churlishness.

  4. What is unfounded about his report that the DSO has 2 African Americans when it has had 3 for years and a fellow making 4.

    Did he investigate?

    Also when he quotes that the average Detroit Salary has gone down 21.3% but doesn’t notice or mention that the DSO musicians have offered 22% paycut does that seem like good reporting?

    I am just stating facts…

    • Geof,

      Once again, the “he” you are referring to has a name, it is Dan Wakin. Unfortunately, I don’t know how I can make this any clearer than I already have but it seems that you don’t understand that the tone you use to pose questions implies that Dan Wakin engaged in sloppy reporting or deliberately withheld information he was aware in order to craft an article designed to portray musicians in a bad light.

      In short, this is entirely unfounded and unjustified.

  5. Drew:

    Thank you for your thoughtful article. I was struck by the following statement, its relationship to the manner in which many Musicians, Orchestra Managers and Board members tend to view the Collective Bargaining Agreement, and how that in turn relates to issues of trust:

    “As a result, the only avenue orchestra musicians have to influence strategic decision making that goes beyond trust is the legally enforceable language resulting from the collective bargaining process.”

    Unfortunately, in many situations, the CBA is viewed as an obstacle or impediment to something the Management and/or Board may want to accomplish, rather than as something that has a strategic planning value in and of itself. Too often, while ostensibly grateful for the protections it offers, some Musicians nevertheless may resent the personal limitations it imposes when literally interpreted. Both of these views miss the greater good to be had from a more reverential grasp of the CBA, and fail to take into account both the potential healing nature of the periodic yet on-going coming to terms of all parties, and the invaluable institutional history that the document represents.

    No matter what the two sides may disagree on, like it or not, the CBA is the place where they do agree. It shouldn’t be described as a “Union Contract” (as some Board members refer to it) any more than it should be called a “Management Decree” (as Musicians sometimes view the “rules” it places on them). The fact is, it should be held up as something both sides can embrace, with each party placing the highest priority on the carrying out of their respective responsibilities, and elaborating on how best to achieve them via the strategic plan.

    As for representing the history of the relationship of the parties to it, I prefer the notion that an Orchestra isn’t in the “3rd year of a Four-year Agreement” or the 1st year of a Three-year Contract” or whatever the case may be, but, to use my orchestra as an example, is in the “71st year of a Seventy-one year Agreement” (The present-day Utah Symphony was founded in 1940). This takes into account the fact that a great many people have been responsible for the document’s existence and that those of us (on both sides of the table) who are now custodians of that document bear an enormous responsibility to those who came before and those yet to come. Having been here for 33 of those years, as I read our CBA, I’m constantly reminded of the people from all facets of the organization (sadly, many now passed) whose imprints have been left on it. The fact that the CBA will (hopefully) outlive us all should be humbling enough to give it the weight it deserves as a strategic planning tool.

    I spoke with a board member over a year ago about some of these concepts and urged him to try and find some time to read the entire CBA (ironically, that he had recently helped ratify) and give some thought to the blood, sweat, and tears from both sides that had gone into it since it was originally created. Recently, he told me that he hadn’t read it. Though I appreciate and am grateful for all this person has done for the organization, I couldn’t help but be saddened; if indeed, “we’re all in this together” as he states when waxing poetic about the miserable state of the economy and the need for everyone to “pull together” to get through it, I would think he should have more than a passing interest in something that has helped bring us this far. That is, if he wants me to fork over the trust that he says he is willing to earn.

    Musicians are often no less guilty when it comes to their viewing of a CBA, many grumbling about pay or working conditions after a contract is ratified. They forget that the most important reason they have the contract they do is that they elected to ratify it. Musicians often times adopt a hard-line attitude toward working condition infractions but want a looser interpretation when it comes to things such as their own short-term leaves or personal time off. The responsibility to the CBA should cut both ways and Managements have every right to be dismayed when Musicians seek to bend the agreed upon rules more favorably in their own direction.

    A CBA isn’t perfect, any more than the people that helped shape it are perfect; but, if an organization really wants to find common ground on which to build trust and generate strategic vision it need look no further than their own CBA and a wonderful sentiment lurking in the Savings Clause that exists in one form or another. In our case, Article 18 states: “This Agreement represents the entire agreement between the parties…” What that insures among other things, at the very least, is that there is someplace to start strategic planning from that isn’t square one. And, given the uphill battle that so many organizations in this business face, it is one expression of “togetherness” that we should all be thankful for.


    Jamie Allyn
    Double Bass, Utah Symphony Orchestra

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