Decision Time In Detroit?

According to a report in the 2/16/2011 edition of the Detroit Free Press by Mark Stryker, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) submitted what it defines as “a final offer” to the musicians with a ratification deadline of 5:00pm ET, Thursday, 2/17/2011. UPDATE: management deadline and musician voting extended to Saturday…

Stryker’s article reports that although DSO management defines the offer as “very constructive” musician spokesperson and DSO cellist Haden McKay said “At certain points during the weekend we thought progress had been made. At this point we’re really not so sure.”

Although the DSO issued a Thursday deadline, that doesn’t mean we’re assured any resolution today. In fact, it isn’t unusual for professional orchestra musician associations to include a minimum review period in their bylaws before the members can conduct a ratification vote, and as it turns out, that’s precisely the case for the DSO musicians.

I contacted Haden McKay to inquire about whether or not the DSO musicians have a minimum review period and he confirmed that they do.

“There are waiting periods in the bylaws, but the whole group has some discretion in adjusting the timeline,” McKay wrote in an email message. “The details of our voting procedure will be determined by the members at [Thursday’s] meeting within the bylaws. I don’t know yet exactly what the procedure and timeline will be.”

McKay did confirm that the musicians’ meeting is scheduled to begin at 1:30pm ET which leaves four and a half hours for the musicians to review the offer, conduct discussion, and decide how to proceed within the bylaws regarding a ratification vote. When asked whether or not the negotiation committee plans to recommend ratification, McKay declined comment.

I also contacted DSO Director of Public Relations, Elizabeth Weigandt, to ask about whether or not the DSO executive committee is aware that the musicians’ bylaws have a prescribed review period before they can conduct a ratification vote and if so, did they take that into consideration when setting their deadline. At the time this article was published, there has been no reply.

Why Have A Minimum Review Period?

Minimum review periods exist for a number of reasons but in general, they exist in order to provide rank and file members of the musician association a reasonable period of time to review the written offer, ask questions, and conduct at least one full orchestra meeting.

During negotiations, the musicians’ negotiation committee rarely shares a comprehensive amount of details throughout the process; instead, they’ll opt for conducting regular meetings, issuing written updates, etc. Consequently, once an agreement is submitted for ratification, it will take a bit of time for 90+ percent of the musician rank and file to get up to speed on all of the details, conduct a final through discussion, and take a vote. Lastly, unless the ratification process contains provisions for proxy or mail-in votes, conducting a review and vote in the same meeting might unfairly exclude some of the musicians from the decision making process.

The precise amount of time depends on the number of proposed changes, the degree of previous communication between the negotiation committee and their colleagues, and whether negotiations were amicable or contentious.

In organizations the size of the DSO, the master agreement is not a quick read and the more changes a proposal contains, the more time it will take members to process it. The review period provides a layer of protection that prevents the employer, musician negotiating committee, or local AFM officers from ramrodding an agreement through the ratification process. Then there’s the issue of actually getting all of the musicians together for the meeting.

Given the number of adjustments included in the DSO’s proposal, it might seem odd to some that anyone would want one of the stakeholders to make a decision within the space of four and a half hours on nothing more than blind trust.

Even though the negotiations have been dragging on for four and a half months, this isn’t exactly the Cuban missile crisis so it might be in everyone’s best interest to ease up a bit on the next day turn around and set Monday, 2/21/2011 as a deadline. Of course, if the DSO isn’t really serious about this being their “final” offer, then it’s all moot anyway.

Postscript: I’m traveling to LA this morning and flying back tonight so I may not be able to publish updates in a timely fashion. As such, keep an eye on the local Detroit news outlets for breaking news and updates.

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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