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Detroit Symphony Musicians Offer to Return with No Contract

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Striking musicians with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra say they'll return to work without a contract. Cellist and spokesman Haden McKay says the issues will be worked out through binding arbitration, after a contentious, nearly five-month strike.

"Ideally we'd be at the bargaining table together, and we could work out issue by issue, and each side could make sure it was able to protect the things it thought were really important,” he said. “This way we're giving up some control for that. It will be in the hands of a neutral third party.”

Under the last offer from management, base salaries for musicians would drop from more than $100,000 to $80,000. The remainder of the 2010-2011 season was suspended on February 19 and talks have been at a standstill. The orchestra's entire percussion section announced their departure this weekend.

McKay said that musicians arrived at the decision to propose binding arbitration was not a unanimous decision, but it was a majority vote.

“The risk is that things could come into the contract that we’re not really happy with because we didn’t have a chance to negotiate them through our representatives. In ordinary circumstances I don’t think striking musicians would be very eager to do this. But in this case, we don’t seem to be getting a solution in the proper way.

Musicians say that they’ll only able to play if management agrees to adhere to binding arbitration. They proposed the method for finding the arbitrators, consisting of a three-member board, where the musicians get to select one arbitrator, management selects one arbitrator and those two select the third.

As of press time, Detroit management did not return several requests for comment on the musicians’ offer.

"It's a surprise,” said Drew McManus, a Chicago-based orchestra consultant. “I don't know if it was an idea that someone just had and they ran with it, but it's very unique.

“Typically, both sides in a labor dispute won't be able to agree on an arbitrator to select. This process eliminates some of those concerns. Since it is binding, whatever the panel decides, that becomes the contract both parties agree to going forward."

The strike, which began October 4, has sent ripple effects throughout the classical music field as well as Detroit's business community. Restaurant owners around the vicinity of the Max M. Fisher Music Center say they have lost up to 40% of their business. People in the orchestra field see the outcome of the strike as a harbinger of other contract negotiations.

If management accepts the binding arbitration proposal, many questions remain about whether the orchestra can salvage the remainder of the season.

"Folks are optimistic that this whole process could be done in a month or less than two months," said Greg Bowens, a spokesman for the DSO musicians. "But there's nothing that's written in stone anywhere."

"We just hope that they can come back to the stage,” said Jeff Strayer, public relations coordinator for Michigan Opera Theater. “It's a cultural presence that's missing in the city. We hope they'll be able to work together to come to a resolution. Other than that, we don't have a comment for one side or the other."