Expansionary Or Diversionary?

Last Friday, 11/5/2010, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) and its musicians declared a pseudo cease fire in the one month, three day long strike by agreeing to engage in “informal discussions.” According to reports in the Detroit News by Michael Hodges and Detroit Free Press by Mark Stryker, there aren’t many details but what we don’t know can sometimes be as useful as what we do know…


  1. The musicians agreed to cancel picketing activity for at least one performance scheduled at Orchestra Hall.
  2. Both sides agreed to a news blackout while discussions ensue.


  1. Which representatives are participating in the discussions.
  2. If a mediator(s) is involved.
  3. If a discussion schedule is in place or if they are taking things one session at a time.
  4. Which side initiated the process.
  5. Whether musicians intend to suspend any self produced concerts during the discussions.

As for the press blackout, that’s a good sign but in reality, management hasn’t been saying much of anything throughout the course of the labor disagreement so that has little impact on their operations. As for the musicians, the press blackout apparently does not apply to opinion pieces published at their website as they posted the final installment of a series of articles written by William “Bill” Lucas, a member of the DSO trumpet section, on the same day they announced the press blackout.

It would be surprising (nay shocking) to see both sides emerge from the initial discussions with an agreement but at the same time, it is more likely that one or both sides will use the opportunity to take the first detailed step beyond entrenched positions. For weeks now, the musicians have stated a willingness to move beyond the parameters of their last offer but management has remained firm that any conversation must operate within the parameters of the offer they implemented last month.

Ideally, the discussions will set the framework for official negotiations that, in turn, snowball into a final agreement. On the other hand, if either side is using the time to merely probe for weaknesses and/or as a diversionary negotiation tactic, then it would only serve to harden an already crusty labor relationship.

Lastly, it is worth pointing out that if there are any major adjustments in the representatives taking part in the face to face discussions, that is usually an indication of substantive change. Regardless, we’ll all have to wait and see what transpires but early reports indicate that little progress has been achieved.

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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