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Not Turning Back: DSO Joins List of American Orchestra Walk-Outs

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With the Detroit Symphony musicians's rejection of its management's latest contract offer on Saturday, the beleaguered company has ground to a near complete halt in a battle described by the Detroit Free Press as "the most contentious, knock-down-drag-out labor dispute at a major American symphony in a generation." The Detroit Symphony Orchestra has canceled the remainder of its season, and plans for the coming season remain up in the air.

Yet a look across a brief history of orchestra strikes suggest that the past fifteen years have seen some particularly contentious, and unprecedented, examples of grinding negotiations in the classical music world.

1996 is noted as a watershed year in such disputes, with the San Francisco, Atlanta, Oregon and Philadelphia Orchestras all walking out. In the case of Philadelphia, the 64-day long dispute went as far as to engage then-mayor Ed Rendell in the negotiation process, while musicians picketed the local business headquarters of executive committee members.

More recently in 2005, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra staged a two-month strike over pay cuts and season length that lead to the cancellation of more than a dozen concerts and several rounds of auditions. In 2010, the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra held a quick strike of roughly 24 hours in objection to proposed pay cuts and freezes.

Other notable orchestra disruptions include the National Symphony Orchestra's six-week walk out in 1969. The National Symphony Orchestra's fall season was delayed in 1979 due to another strike.

The Honolulu Symphony missed the better part of two seasons in the mid-1990s, later rebounded, but then folded in 2010 after filing Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

"I don't believe there is a crisis in classical music in America," commented Bruce Ridge, chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians, an orchestra advocacy group.

"I do believe there is a crisis in arts management. In Detroit, there's every chance to get a deal, and at a time when Detroit needs a resurgence," Ridge said. According to Americans for the Arts, the non-profit art and culture industry in the US accounts for an estimated $166 billion in economic activity every year, and provides 5.7 million jobs.

"Sometimes these disputes can seem irreparable," Ridge added. "But San Francisco emerged to grow into one of the most innovative orchestras in the entire world. This is not a death knell."

Yet Chicago-based arts consultant Drew McManus maintains that recent disputes have grown more contentious, and that the situation in Detroit has been "very, very different."

"They're not really just arguing about money," commented McManus. "There's so much more that's being hashed out in this labor fight compared to the others. It separates Detroit entirely." The Detroit Symphony Orchestra has held five strikes since 1969, but the current halt marks the longest work stoppage in DSO history.

McManus, who has consulted for orchestras around the world and has closely followed the situation in Detroit, cited roiling internal politics and a sustained economic crisis as particularly sharp obstacles to resolving the Detroit dispute. "It's almost kind of an Ahab and the white whale," McManus said. "They're so focused on killing that whale, they don't realize they're sinking that ship in the process."

While arts organizations across the country have had to contend with a difficult economic environment, conditions have been especially challenging in Detroit, where the arts scene is hobbled by grave funding cuts and shrinking budgets. The Michigan Opera Theatre and Detroit Institute of Arts have also drawn recent attention following staff layoffs, reduced budgets and truncated arts programs set against a backdrop of disappearing city and state funding.