With Bated Breath

Talks between the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) and its musicians resumed over the weekend in the first round of negotiations since the organization nixed the remainder of the 2010/11 planned concert season. A 4/1/2011 deadline set by the DSO on whether or not to cancel scheduled summer concert obligations passed without a decision as both sides agreed to return to the bargaining table over the weekend.

Update, 8:44am CT: a tentative agreement has been announced, details here and here.

According to reports in the Detroit Free Press by Mark Stryker, an initial marathon meeting lasting just over 17 hours took place on 4/2/2011 and talks resumed again the following afternoon. According to the Free Press and reports from the Detroit News written by Michael Hodges, both sides agreed to return to the bargaining table per terms crafted by a third party intermediary.

The decision on whether or not to cancel the summer series concerts is temporarily on hold until the talks conclude and as of now, an announcement on those issues and more may appear as early as today. At the same time, the talks may result in no decisions whatsoever but we’ll keep an eye on things throughout the day and post an update if there is any breaking news.

In the meantime, what do you think transpired over the weekend?

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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0 thoughts on “With Bated Breath”

  1. Today’s announcement of a tentative agreement is the most encouraging news we’re heard in months. The musicians will vote on the TA during the next 72 hours, and I’m hopeful it will be ratified. Drew, assuming that the contract is ratified, what steps do you suggest that the two parties take to begin to heal the wounds and rebuild the trust that was already badly damaged before the strike began? I believe that management and the musicians must work together in a truly collaborative manner in order to present a united front to the community, broaden the donor base, and increase revenue. I believe that the time to begin this rebuilding is now, leaving behind the acrimony and pubic recriminations. But I realize that’s a lot easier to say than to do. I’d be very interested in any suggestions you might have about how they might proceed. I hope my comments aren’t premature.

    • If I could chime here (like a broken record), a good first step would be for the musicians to completely revamp their website.

      While I would agree that a record of their transgressions and beefs is something to hang onto, it is high time to wash that dirty laundry, fold it up and put it away.

      If this agreement is ratified, the time to bury that hatchet is NOW. If necessary, it can always be dug up later. One would hope that this happens sooner rather than later.

    • My apologies for not replying sooner and advance apologies as today is particularly busy and I won’t have time to respond to your question in the meaningful fashion they deserve. But in haste, how both sides approach settlement announcements will shed a great deal of light whether they came together in sincere conciliation or as a result of forces designed to break spirits. Hopefully, it will be the former as the latter all but precludes any hope for meaningful rebuilding efforts.

      • Thanks for your reply, Drew. A couple of good signs: (1) the musicians met this afternoon and are returning to work immediately to rehearse for two concerts this weekend, and (2) the DSO is presenting these as free concerts as a sign of gratitude to the community. This information was included in a post on their FB page, thanking everyone (including the musicians) for their support. Also, the DSO FB profile photo has been changed to one of the entire orchestra on stage, with the DSO logo. Maybe I’m grasping at straws, but these seem like positive signs to me.

    • Dear Mr. Comins;

      Please rest assured that the DSO musicians are well aware that any settlement that they agree to with their management will be highly scrutinized by other musicians and other orchestra managements. This was never lost on the DSO musicians throughout any of these negotiations and ratification votes. They knew that they were the first of many coming bargaining sessions that are soon pending with other orchestras. They did not want have to accept anything that could create an unfortunate precedence that others might to have to follow.

      They did this at a great financial price. Some have had to sell instruments, and some are about to lose their homes. Regardless of if you think it was right or wrong, this strike was very costly at many levels to these fine DSO musicians. They knew their negotiations were the first of many to come in both the near and distant future.

  2. Dear Mr. Fletcher:

    As an AFM member and activist for 61 years (and counting), I’m painfully aware of the sacrifices the DSO musicians have made. Also, as someone aware of the LAO’s supposed 21st century paradigm, I believe my wondering about future orchestra negotiations in other cities is a legitimate concern. My friends on various orchestra committees share my concern.

  3. Dear Mr. Comins;

    Thank you for your comments. Please know that I meant no disrespect to you or your legitimate question. I am very sorry if my comments came out negatively to you. You ask a very critical question and one that I fully understand. It has been painful to watch friends and members of my own family devastated by this horrible DSO strike. And I do mean devastated.

    I am at a loss for words from all of this. While some DSO members have made it through reasonably well, some others have almost been wiped out financially with medical bills due to no health coverage, or from other expenses beyond their control during this strike. Some have eyed bankruptcy. It has been so very, very painful to watch people who have had to sell their best, or backup instruments to make it through this strike. There is much bitterness and anger. Some commentators and others have stated that there is now a need for “healing” at the DSO, but that does not even begin to cover what must take place after this horrible and terrible, terrible strike.

    If other orchestra musicians are able to work out their coming negotiations with their respective managements in an amicable manor, that would be great. But all musicians with negotiations coming better be ready. While I try to remain optimistic, I regretfully would suggest that musicians in every orchestra with negotiations soon coming and with orchestra managements that want to implement the 21st century plan, put together a detailed plan of their own regarding how to respond. Even if these orchestra’s negotiations are a year away, now is the time for these musicians to start to get ready. They should review what the DSO musicians did right and wrong during this terrible strike and start now to implement a detailed plan and approach. They must be working with their respective locals now. All musicians had better be saving their money and getting ready now.

    I cannot say to what level the DSO management is fully tapped into the LAO’s 21st century plan…but based on what I have read, I believe that it included significant portions of that approach. Last night I had a chance to read this latest agreement that was reached by DSO musicians and the management this past weekend, as well as all of the previous proposals drafted by the DSO management, including their original Proposal A and Proposal B that started all of this mess in Detroit. Thankfully, the language in this last proposal was different.

  4. Dear Mr. Fletcher;

    Thanks for your prompt response and clarification. Any symphony musician losing a minimum of $55,000 in addition to a reduced income for the future is bound to be devastated. As one who didn’t have to sell my fine Italian violin just to survive, I can barely imagine the pain of one who did.

    I can only hope that the DSO and its musicians will regain their status in the near future.

    • Mr. Comins;

      I would like to add a few more comments here, if I may (after having been quizzed personally by some via email regarding my earlier posts). First, the people of AFM Local 5 have been unbelievably supportive and helpful to the DSO musicians. Gordon Stump, president of AFM Local 5, has been a solid and stable presence through all of this and has stood by the musicians since Day 1. The musician’s strike fund has helped and the financial support from the union, other musicians, and other orchestras to the DSO musicians did make a big difference in helping families meeting their basic monthly expenses. Other orchestras around the country have also helped by bringing DSO musicians on as occasional subs for their concerts. Bob King, from the UAW has been very supportive and has physically stood side-by-side with the DSO musicians. Unfortunately, even these forms of real and substantive support, for various reasons, still were not able to bridge the financial gap for some. And lastly, a strike in the State of Michigan, like most states, is considered a voluntary work stoppage by employees and workers are not eligible for unemployment insurance support from the state.

      Fortunately, the negotiations may now be over. But there are still many tough issues ahead for the DSO and its musicians. No one involved in the Detroit metro area has any delusions about the future challenges, and no one is at all unrealistic about what lies ahead. Massive debt, damaged public relations, rifts between the management, the board, the musicians, and patrons, the loss of an entire section of the orchestra. All are an undeniable part of the difficult road leading to tomorrow for the DSO. Buy yet there is still hope, and things can improve through hard and honest work. Even these daunting obstacles can be corrected.

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