dso musicians reject contract, season ‘suspended’

Well, here we are. The game of brinksmanship at the Detroit Symphony has been carried to its (il)logical conclusion – the musicians are still on strike, and management has ‘suspended’ (née canceled) the remainder of the current season.

Is this what both sides of this contract warfare were hoping for?

I am certain that both sides (of the same coin, in the instance of an arts organization – neither can survive without the other, nor apparently die) are extremely dismayed at this result, but is either party surprised? Those of us looking from the outside in saw this coming from the day that the strike authorization was given by the musicians, and the day that management proposed truly sweeping changes in both basic compensation and job description for the musicians.

Meanwhile, there has been an informal code of silence amongst the DSO musicians’ union brethren around the country.  There was an elephant in the room, and it revolved around the fact that the DSO’s salary has long been seen by members of other orchestras as (anecdotally) phenomenally high in relation to both the cost of living in Detroit and in relation to the prevailing wages of Detroit residents (if they had jobs at all). I’m not saying by any stretch of the imagination that the DSO musicians don’t deserve to be well paid – they’re a great orchestra with a proud history, and some of the players are the best in the world by any standard. However, when approaching a negotiation, one should (presumably) be cognizant of the wider context in which one is operating.  If Detroit were doing great, if its industries were booming, and the unemployment rate were in the low single digits, then there would have been much more of a leg to stand on in court of public opinion (which matters for a lot in difficult labor negotiations – the public’s opinion, forcefully stated, can influence the board a lot more than the musicians can).

Don’t think I’m letting management off easy.  They have been about as heavy-handed, draconian, and disingenuous as a negotiating party can be in this dispute, and they only reason that they could get away with this is the state of public sentiment in the Detroit environs, and in the very difficult economic situation in which Detroit has been mired for the last couple decades. I don’t believe that a successful orchestral organization can exist with the current leadership, which has proven its incompetence time after time in recent years, especially with the disastrous situation with the banks and the funding of the concert hall remodeling and expansion project. Who the hell was minding the store when that whole deal went down?!

So, here we are. What happens next? Is starting over the answer? One thinks that’s what the board and management want. They could hire a whole new green orchestra, pay them half as much, send them out as an army to shore up the Detroit Public Schools music programs (if they exist at all at this point), and try to repair their relationship with the community over the next decade (if they make it that long). Clearly, starting over isn’t in the best interest of the musicians, either. Just look at orchestras like Tulsa, where they are making a fraction of what they were before, even several years out of bankruptcy and now under musician management. It could happen, however, if it is indeed not just all about either the money or the working conditions (service conversion). The musicians could have the orchestra’s future and destiny entirely in their hands, but at a great cost. It’s hard to be optimistic at this point in the dispute, but resolutions have come out of more difficult and entrenched situations. My fingers are crossed, and my thoughts are with the musicians of the Detroit Symphony.


Musician’s Press Release:


Members vote to reject one sided management proposal and urge quick talks to save the season

Detroit – Musicians of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra are seeking a compromise agreement after members voted to reject a contract proposal by DSO executives today. The move follows an intense week of negotiations brokered personally by U.S. Senator Carl Levin and Quicken Loans owner Dan Gilbert for more than 20-hours. DSO executives did not show up for a face to face meeting with Senator Levin, Gilbert and the musicians until the third day. Once they did, they waited until both Levin and Gilbert left the meeting and made significant changes to the proposal the two had brokered. The offer put forward by management included:

– raising individual employee healthcare deductibles more than 800 percent from $250 to $3,000 (the amount would drop to $2,000 after one payment of $1,000 by the company)

– requiring employees to cover their own travel related costs for work assignments up to 75 miles away from Orchestra Hall

– reducing the previous DSO commitment for community outreach by $1 million

– setting the hourly rate for musicians to as low as $5 per hour for participating in every community outreach effort

– reducing the ability of the full orchestra to play at community events from 85 to groups of 1, 6 and 12 people at a time

– requiring the musicians to agree to remove of one of their members from their rolls

“Today’s decision reflects our deep disappointment at the inability of the executives to be upfront and honest with people,” said musician’s president Gordon Stump. “Can you believe they asked good people to sacrifice one of their colleagues to save their own skin? That was in the proposal. It was a Faustian choice. I am proud of the musicians for standing up for their colleague despite their own personal suffering.”

No further meetings have been scheduled. Despite this, musicians remain thankful for Levin and Gilbert’s assistance and encourage DSO executives to remove the barriers to compromise and return to bargaining in order to save the season.

For more information about the musicians, visit: www.detroitsymphonymusicians.org

Detroit Symphony management press release:


Ongoing DSO Operations to Continue

Decision on 2011 Summer & 2011-12 Season to be Determined

Detroit – February 19, 2011 – The Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) announced today that due to the rejection of its final offer by the Musicians, it has reluctantly released artists and conductors from their contracts and suspended all remaining orchestral concerts through June. Prospects of rescheduling concerts originally within the season, resuming the 2011 Summer Orchestral Season and announcing a 2011-12 calendar remain possible pending a settlement.

The decision comes at the close of a week filled with earnest negotiations, assisted by community intermediaries that began last Friday and included a series of proposals and counter proposals exchanged on both sides. Management’s final offer, which was modified to meet many of the Musicians’ requests on a wide range of issues, was made on Tues., Feb. 15 with a request for a vote from the members.

The offer provided a nationally competitive, comprehensive compensation package which includes the healthcare benefits proposed by the union and continues the pursuit of educational and community engagement as identified by the DSO’s funders.

“This is indeed disappointing news,” said Stanley Frankel, Chairman of the DSO Board of Directors. “For two years, we have tried to engage the Musicians’ elected leadership to join the board and staff and be part of the solutions necessary for the DSO to achieve sustainability. Over the past five months, the unpredictability of the strike has brought numerous financial hardships to our patrons, artists, community partners, neighbors, those with whom we do business, and the institution itself. Although it is not our preference, by suspending the season now, we end that cycle and allow these partners to move forward while the DSO focuses fully on the important work of rebuilding its business.

“It is apparent that the members’ expectations continue to exceed what we can responsibly provide.

“A settlement we can’t afford compromises the DSO’s viability and jeopardizes its contribution to Detroit’s revival. Over the past three years, after raising $36.7M, we still incurred a three-year operating deficit of $25.3M. Even our last proposal would have caused the DSO to face multi-million deficits for the foreseeable future. We were willing to make that commitment in order to settle this strike and return our musicians to the stage.”

Frankel said that while the DSO is suspending its orchestral season, it remains ready to return to talks. He confirmed that future proposals must now be influenced by the DSO’s deteriorating economic condition resulting from the Musician’s strike.

Looking forward, the Max M. Fisher Music Center will continue its role as a cultural, community, educational, and performing arts anchor on the Woodward Corridor consisting of the restored and modernized Orchestra Hall and the Pincus Music Education Center, home to the DSO’s Civic Youth Ensembles and educational programs. The Max offers expanded opportunities to create musical, cultural, and educational programs serving a vibrant downtown community.

A summary, but not conclusive, list of upcoming activities include the following: Jazz presentations of Bobby McFerrin, Anat Cohen Trio, Hot Club of Detroit, Bill Charlap and Renee Rosnes; numerous rentals and events including the State of the City address with Mayor David Bing; Civic Youth Ensemble concerts and Civic Jazz Live! performances; and its fundraising activities and retail business.

“This institution will not be silent,” Frankel said.

James B. Nicholson, past DSO Chairman and Chair of the Negotiating Committee, remarked, “It’s unfortunate the Union bargaining committee is depriving its members of the careers their professional skills have earned. The DSO Executive Committee has repeatedly studied the short- and long-term finances of the DSO and has concluded that even at a $34 million agreement, the DSO will continue to run multi-million dollar deficits over future years. These deficits must be eliminated over time, and operations managed to breakeven results if the institution is to survive. The strike has decidedly prolonged the timeframe in which this turnaround can take place. An irresponsible contract is simply not in the cards.”

The Negotiating Committee said that of “several dozen” issues which remain unresolved, the number of musicians in the ensemble and the approach to spending the $2 million in education, community, and chamber music services emerged as unfortunate contentious issues. The AFM Local 5 bargainers persist in putting forward an ensemble of too few musicians. Their proposal is “startling” given their admirable defense of future artistic excellence. “It is unfortunate that they have prioritized spending money on an expensive healthcare plan rather filling ensemble vacancies.”

Last weekend, agreement on a framework was reached regarding the use of $2 million in restricted community-service funding. The work will be optional and must be scheduled and paid with a flexible, pay-per-service approach. Union representatives have asked that this money be added to their base pay, scheduled in rigid, traditional full-week increments. Flexibility has always been a requirement for being successful in working with the community. The DSO simply must preserve the ability to be nimble when community or educational opportunities emerge. Locking the DSO into a restrictive approach will mean less community engagement.

Anne Parsons, CEO of the DSO said, “Our funders and donors have expressed support for the DSO musicians’ deepened integration with our continuing education and community work and reiterated repeatedly that they will only continue to support a sustainable contract.

“Throughout this long, painful season marked by disappointment and struggle, we have been grateful to our donors, ticket holders, the DSO board, staff, volunteers and the community at large that has supported us throughout this ordeal. The DSO must and will emerge from this difficult period a stronger, healthier institution, in spite of the setbacks we have faced. We will work together in the weeks and months ahead to lay out a new plan for the future, further developing the education and community outreach so integral to our mission. And, we will be relieved to learn at any point that our musicians wish to rejoin us under terms that are sustainable.”

Following are the main components of the formal proposal of the DSO, rejected by the Musicians, which continue to preclude an agreement.

DSO Feb. 15 Final Proposal Summary

Salary Package

• Thirty-six concert weeks; four weeks paid vacation; compensated additional and optional community/educational, outreach, and chamber music activities.

• Total annual average compensation including an expensive healthcare package and pension benefits would have been $137,865 in the final year.

• FY12: $80,200 (base) + $7,100 (community/educational) = $87,300

• FY13: $80,800 (base) + $7,100 (community/educational) = $87,900

• FY14: $81,200 (base) + $7,100 (community/educational) = $88,300


• Two defined benefit pension plans remain intact including the American Federation of Musicians’ pension plan as well as the DSO pension plan; $17,188 average pension contribution each year to benefit individual DSO musicians.

• Comprehensive healthcare and life insurance, including medical, dental and vision. No employee premium contributions.

Other Benefits & Offerings

• Instrument insurance and parking.

• Continuation of tenure, peer review, and service on the Board and its committees. For example, establishment of joint committees of musicians, staff and board to advise on community and education outreach activities.

• Elimination of Management’s proposed two-tier wage structure.

• Elimination of Management’s proposal on freezing seniority pay.

• Roles for both librarians. The Library Director will have a position within management and the second librarian will remain within the bargaining unit.

For Patrons

For those patrons with tickets to now-suspended concerts, there are four options that will provide the full value of unused tickets:

1. Donation: convert the value of tickets to an annual fund donation in support of the DSO’s education programs and its existing music presentations.

2. Rain Check: request a voucher redeemable for any future DSO or upcoming Orchestra Hall concert through August 31, 2012.

3. Exchange: request an exchange for any of the DSO’s upcoming non-orchestral events, including the Jazz Series and special presentations.

4. Refund: request a full refund of unused concert tickets.

Please visit www.detroitsymphony.com/ticketrequest or call the Box Office at (313) 576-5111 to choose the option that is best for you. The DSO Box Office is open this Sunday from 12-4 p.m. and Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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