No Agreement In Detroit. So What's Next?

According to reports in the 2/8/2011 editions of the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) musicians have rejected management’s offer from Monday, 2/7/2011. At the same time, the Free Press article, by Mark Stryker, reports that the DSO executive committee secretary has indicated that if a deal isn’t in place by Friday, 2/11/2011 then they would “probably” cancel the remaining season…

Stryker’s article goes on to report that the musicians’ spokesperson, DSO Cellist Haden McKay, indicated the musicians have offered an “informal counterproposal.” The News’ article, by Michael Hodges, adds that the crux of the disagreement is still centered on how the outstanding $2 million in special funding is to be allocated over the term of the contract.

What’s fascinating here is that for the low, low price of $2 million, you could conceivably control the fate of one of the oldest and renowned professional orchestras in the country. It is unknown whether the $2 million in question is from a single funding source or not but it would be interesting to compare this gift alongside the DSO’s other existing gifts of equal or greater value and whether they contain any potential restrictions on program activity, etc. like the type reportedly assigned to the special funding gift.

To be clear, I do not know if the DSO’s current stream of contributed revenue has a donor within those parameters but if they do, it could become an excellent case study on how an organization can become so focused on the terms associated with restricted funds that they end up functioning as institutional blinders.

In the meantime, most folks are wondering what happens next for the DSO. Here are a few potential outcomes based on traditional practices (some more likely than others, I encourage you to guess which ones are which):

  • The DSO executive committee postpones a decision on canceling the remainder of the season.
    Just because the executive committee has alluded to a 2/11/2011 deadline, it isn’t set in stone. Granted, there isn’t much time to play with but Friday is by no means a point of no return dictated by forces beyond their control.
  • Both sides continue to negotiate.
    Neither side has mentioned the phrase “last, best, and final offer” which is a strong indication that there is remaining wiggle room. Moreover, none of the newspaper reports indicate that the musicians conducted a ratification vote, and when labor disputes reach this magnitude, musician negotiating committees typically refrain from bringing an offer to their colleagues unless it is something they can recommend for ratification.
  • The DSO executive committee could decide to cancel the remaining season.
    That doesn’t mean both sides would cease negotiations but the thought of continuing under those parameters wouldn’t exactly be considered optimum conditions.
  • Both sides could make details (including the source) of the mysterious $2 million gift public.
    This would certainly remove much of the he-said, she-said that appears to be going on plus it would shed some transparency on what the donor’s wishes actually entail. Based on Hodges’ report in the Detroit News, it seems the musicians feel there is more flexibility in the donor’s gift than previously stated. Making the details public would quickly confirm or deny those thoughts.

It doesn’t take much imagination to picture some of the potential outcomes, but perhaps the best to hope for at this point is both sides continue to conduct formal negotiation sessions, open up with details about the sticking point gift, hammer out the remaining differences, and arrive at an agreement the board and musicians can ratify.

The one thing you can count on at this juncture is something will happen.

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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