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.
“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.