Why You Shouldn't Get Too Excited About Early Details From Detroit

I know, I know; we’ve all been wondering about the details from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) tentative agreement. But I’m here to rain on the parade a bit by saying that you will be better off by exercising a little patience and be at least a little bit afraid to rush in where angels fear to tread. Here’s a list of reasons why…

  1. Detail overload. The average collective bargaining agreement produced by a typical contentious labor dispute is filled with dozens, if not hundreds of changes. And we all know the DSO fight was anything but typical. Consequently, you can expect to see hundreds if not thousands of changes to the contract’s language. There’s no way they can be summed up in tidy sound bites or monosyllabic bullet lists.
  2. WTF does that mean!?! And with so many changes, you can all but guarantee that a good bit of the new language, much of it written and edited in a hasty and less than ideal environment, will generate more questions than it answers. For example, I had an opportunity to review some of the proposed community service language from previous take-it-or-leave-it offers and I can attest to the fact that it was a daunting pile of bewilderment.
  3. 2 + 2 = 5? Anyone hoping for nice, neat compensation figures to help determine the outcome from the war of wages is going to be disappointed. Provisos, potential retroactive payments, optional pay, electronic music guarantees, changes to seniority formulas, tiered wage scales, options pay rates, and much (so very much) more will make it impossible to get a firm idea of compensation value until the full contract is available for a comprehensive analysis. End of story.
  4. Side effects include dizziness. I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that this agreement isn’t going to be announced to the world at large with management, executive committee members, and musicians strolling into a press conference arm in arm wearing nothing but smiles and sunshine. Consequently, you can expect many if not all of the early details will be delivered through the very same spin filters we’ve all been subjected to over the past several months. Consequently, you shouldn’t believe anything until you see it in unedited black and white contract language in all of its wordy glory.


At the same time, none of this means there won’t be a few key items of note worth looking for once the real, verifiable, details emerge. Here are a few items you should be thinking about that unlike some other equally serious issues in the dispute, have far less flexibility when looking for solutions:


  1. Begin with the end. One of the musicians’ strongest demands throughout the conflict was recovery; meaning, the level of base pay level at the end of the final year of the contract term. If it isn’t in the ballpark musicians have been pushing for, there will be questions.
  2. Last man standing. Management played some serious hardball to remove the principal librarian as a defined member of the collective bargaining agreement. In short, they didn’t think the position in musician-y enough; it’s just musician-ish. In fact, this was one of the cornerstones behind why the musicians rejected management’s last, best, and final (ha!) offer via ratification vote last month.
  3. Separate but equal. Another item where management invested a great deal of moral capital was creating a tiered pay scale; one for existing musicians and a lower scale for incoming musicians. I was shocked to see the DSO musicians warm up to this idea in some of the earlier exchanges and it will be telling to see whether or not this item made it into the final agreement.

So if you must scour every last word written about early details, please do yourself and everyone you talk to about this a huge favor and first, keep the above lists handy at all times and next, don’t jump to conclusions. You’ll be glad you did.

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 “Why You Shouldn't Get Too Excited About Early Details From Detroit”

  1. OK Grinch, what you say is of course true, but let’s not forget the musicians voted to return to Orchestra Hall before they even ratified the contract. Tickets for the free concerts this weekend were all gone within hours of the box office opening yesterday morning.

    It may be a brief honeymoon, but gee whiz, after 6 months of ugliness, can’t we have one weekend of harmony before the ice water bath?

    • LOL! For you Chris, anything. I’ll promise to suspend reality through the weekend so long as everyone agrees to go into it eyes wide open.

      But I did feel that today’s piece was entirely necessary due to the overwhelming amount of personal email and FB messages I’ve been receiving filled with wild speculation and even wilder extrapolations on the scantest of (unsubstantiated) details. My primary concern at this juncture is that people don’t consume these early reports as their primary source of content for developing a longer term frame of reference.

  2. Pretty sure you will see some type of two-tier or provisional salary structure, and a lot of that in other orchestra contracts down the road. And I’d be shocked if there is full recovery by the end of the contract. Not in this particular situation.

  3. Drew, would you mind elaborating on where you saw DSO musicians warm up to the 2-tier wage idea? I am in the DSO, and never got the impression that that would fly at all. Also, because things have not even been voted on yet, I won’t comment on the details of the proposal, as much as I’d like to! Thanks!

    • Shortly before and then immediately after the ratification vote where the musicians voted down the proposal in March, there was no mention of the multi-tier system in the list of items the committee posted as reasons for rejecting the contract. Likewise, the last newspaper report that listed it as an outstanding item was from 2/14/2011 in the Freep. Beyond that, it was never mentioned by the musician spokespersons nor in their press statements.

      I’ll have to see if I saved the newspaper articles, but I do recall at one point in the Levin-Granholm proposal it included the two-tier structure, albeit for a temporary time. But even then, the details of the temporary structure were publicly unknown.And clearly, there is a substantial difference between a temporary measure that is replaced by the previous structure by the end of an agreement and a temporary measure that has no defined sunset point.

      • I don’t know why that was not listed in the committee’s list of items from the February non-ratification — indeed it was in management’s proposal that was overwhelmingly rejected. The fact that it was omitted does not necessarily mean that we ever “warmed up” to the idea.

      • True enough. But the more I think about it, the more I recall it had to do with the Levin-Granholm proposal, which did call for the two-tier structure. Consequently, the musicians’ committee press statements indicated they accepted it within their endorsement of the proposal. At that time, the only item the musicians spokespersons were addressing was the nature of how the community outreach component would be structured.

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