Stakes Are Raised In Detroit

On 1/26/2011 the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) executive committee will meet to “evaluate the merit of suspending the remainder of the 2010-11 season, as well as indefinitely deferring the announcement of the 2011-12 season, until a settlement can be achieved.” This step is right on schedule as most orchestras need to pull triggers on major decisions related to season planning during the first two months of the calendar year…

Assuming the DSO and its musicians fail to reach an agreement before the 1/26/2011 meeting, we could see an announcement from the DSO cancelling the rest of the current season in as soon as two weeks. Currently, both sides have ratcheted up efforts to agitate pressure points with the musicians protesting at the North American International Auto Show and the DSO making the public announcement threatening to cancel the rest of the season.

According to recent reports in the Detroit News by Michael Hodges and the Detroit Free Press by Zlati Meyer, the musicians are asking some of the DSO’s larger local sponsors to withdraw funding and request that the DSO remove their logos from online and print promotional material until a new agreement is signed. The musicians attended the auto show to draw attention to requests made to Ford Motor Co, General Motors, Chrysler and even Honda, however, the musicians intend on focusing similar requests to all of the DSO’s corporate donors.

In a news report from 1/10/2010 Crain’s Detroit, musician spokesperson Haden McKay clarified their strategy.

“What we’re trying to say is if you’re going to make contributions, and we want you to, do it when the orchestra is performing.”

A few days before the musicians’ auto show action, the DSO turned up the heat on their end by issuing a press release on 1/7/2011 to announce the cancellation of concerts through 1/16/2011 as well as the notice about potentially cancelling the remainder of the season. Likewise, they initiated a common technique during labor disputes of replacing starting annual wage offers with overall compensation figures.

At the same time, it pays to remember that a lot can happen in the space of two weeks but the fact that both sides in the conflict are demonstrating that they are willing to consider and endure long term damage in order to gain leverage in the dispute isn’t a positive sign that things will wrap up any time soon.

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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6 thoughts on “Stakes Are Raised In Detroit”

  1. Is it correct that DSO has not moved from its September offer to the musicians? It seems that the “overall compensation figure” touted by DSO is spurious and implies that there has been movement on its side, which is deceptive. Clearly the musicians moved from their previous position when they endorsed the Granholm-Levin deal.

    This is especially frustrating that the 2 sides are only $666,666 apart (per year over 3 years), which must be a small percentage of the annual budget.

    • I don’t know if I would categorize the DSO’s change in describing the musician compensation package in cumulative terms as spurious so much as confusing. It isn’t uncommon for management’s to present musician compensation in this way or an overall average that takes all of those sources into consideration but it is less common to change course in the midst of a prolonged disagreement. The other component missing from the overall compensation figure is that it would apparently only apply to existing members and not incoming members, provided the musicians accept the lower pay scale for incoming musicians.

      Whether or not the DSO has moved from it’s September position in the sense of agreeing to higher budget obligations is up for debate. The DSO CEO claimed they made an offer that increased their deal by $1 million around Thanksgiving but it is unknown whether or not that offer is still on the table.

  2. Lets just hope the sponsers come back if and when the orchestra starts up again.

    The strike, and now the musicians calling for, may be the excuse some sponsers are looking for to get out. Money is tight and companies are looking for the best return on their advert and sponsership dollars. If they find better return or use for it elsewhere they may not be inclined to return.

    It also seems counter to the musicians’ goal. They want more money, the orchestra says they have no more money so it seems to me the musicians should be cheering for people to support the DSO and fill the coffers. At least then the musicians could say look “during the strike we got X number of sponsers to donate, that money should come to us.”

    This does nothing but depleat the coffers more and increases the burden on the DSO managment to come up with money. If they didn’t have the money to pay what the musicians wanted before they sure not going to have it now.

    I hope there are enough doctors around to patch up all the wonded feet.

    • You’ve certainly identified all of the very real risks but it goes to show how serious both sides are in the conflict. It can be fascinating to watch how these situations play out throughout the business and there is no real trend to help define any reasonable expectation on the outcome for Detroit.

      At the same time, the risks associated with the musicians’ course of action exist in the same form for the executive committee’s impending decision on 1/26/2011. Canceling and/or suspending the remainder of the season (likewise for 2011/12 planning) will produce the same outcomes you’ve identified for the musician’s actions. It’s a heavy duty game of chicken.

  3. You say confusing, I say spurious, but one thing is clear – there’s a slew of patrons who do not think the DSO has acted with integrity during this negotiation. Fascinating as the dispute may be, it’s not a spectator sport for the concert-going public. We forget about the other group of affected stakeholders – the citizens of Detroit, who desire the soul-soothing music that brought us here in the first place, and need Detroit to be a thriving city for the sake of their own businesses.

    • I doubt anyone would argue that patrons are impacted by the labor dispute as much as the other stakeholders, in fact, that’s been pointed out here in several articles and numerous other media outlets so I doubt anyone has forgotten about them. Ideally, patrons will contact board members, executives, and the musicians’ association with their thoughts as well as write letters to the editor at local news outlets and elected officials.

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