Labor Dispute Quiets Detroit Symphony

Friday, October 01, 2010

WQXR's Midge Woolsey speaks with Haden McKay, a cellist in the Detroit Symphony and the players' spokesman:

Midge Woolsey speaks with Anne Parsons, president of the DSO:

When the global economic crisis hit two years ago, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra suffered only a minor shortfall, as local residents opened their wallets wide to keep the music playing.

Thanks to $2 million in last-minute gifts from some of the orchestra's most reliable donors, the orchestra ended 2008 with a shortfall of $512,000, a relatively modest deficit on a $31.5-million budget.

This week, it became clear that it wasn't enough.

Instead of rehearsing music of Berlioz, Bruch and William Schuman with their music director, acclaimed conductor Leonard Slatkin, the symphony's 96 musicians are walking a picket line today. This coming weekend's concerts are canceled. And the rest of the season is in jeopardy.

Facing a $9 million budget deficit, management wants to cut base pay by 30 percent from $104,650 to $73,200 in three years. They also want to halt the notion of 52-week compensation (including nine weeks of vacation), change benefits and adopt new job descriptions that include more outreach, teaching and chamber concerts.

Musicians have offered to take a 22 percent initial cut to $82,000 with increases to $96,600 in year three, 8 percent less than they make now.

The impasse is a reflection of the immense strains threatening orchestras across the nation.

Facing chronic red ink and houses only two-thirds full, the board chairman of the Philadelphia Orchestra warned of possible bankruptcy earlier this year. The Dallas Symphony CEO resigned, with the orchestra running a $4 million deficit. The Charleston Symphony in South Carolina closed its doors last March, and the Honolulu Symphony filed for bankruptcy protection last December.

The recession has taken a toll on ticket sales, donations and endowment income for many other orchestras nationwide and both musicians and management have had to give in order to survive.

The musicians of the Detroit Symphony believe that by accepting pay cuts of about 30 percent, top players will leave for greener pastures, and the organization will struggle to find replacements of similar talent. The Detroit Symphony's pay has historically ranked in or near the top ten of American orchestras, a fact that mirrors its artistic stature, say the musicians. (Slatkin, the group’s veteran conductor, has stayed out of the labor dispute.)

Management argues that drastic cuts are in line with the dire financial realities of metropolitan Detroit. Michigan’s jobless rate is at 14.3 percent and household incomes in the state have dropped 21.3 percent over the last decade; 16.2 percent of the population now lives below the poverty level. The recession has hit every segment of the population including many longtime arts donors.

In an editorial, the Detroit News contended that the orchestra should not be immune from the sacrifices that Michigan’s other workers have had to make.

"Union-protected jobs with six-figure salaries are scarce in today’s Michigan,” the newspaper said. “The musicians should hang on to theirs with both hands, and pray along with the rest of us for a future that returns our state to prosperity."

The musicians have set up a Web site to make their case, and question the fairness of management’s proposals. “Several of the proposals do nothing to address management's stated goals of ‘sustainability and viability,’ but seem instead designed to give much greater overall control to management,” their statement reads in part.

Regardless of the outcome, many analysts believe Detroit and other orchestras across America will need to radically rethink their missions in order to attract new audiences and remain viable. In a Wall Street Journal column, the critic Terry Teachout noted how the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra faced up to the long-term decline of Newark, its home, by reconfiguring itself as a state-wide group that gives concerts in seven different cities. In the process, it clawed its way back from near-bankruptcy.

Detroit’s problems are particularly acute, however, given that two of the city's major employers -- Chrysler and General Motors -- were active donors to the arts for many years. Both companies are showing signs of recovery but their futures as corporate citizens remains uncertain.

This is the orchestra’s fifth strike since 1969 and the first since 1987.


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Comments [3]

Tom VanderMeulen from Ypsilanti, MI

(continued from previous)

I had a front-row seat last year to witness the event everyone used to think would bring calamity to the U.S. economy: the bankruptcy of General Motors. The 'battle' being played out in the press now between the DSO musicians and the DSO organization evokes recollections of the 2007 UAW / GM negotiations. With the DSO now, as back then, the musicians want to delude us (or merely themselves) that theirs is a Grand American Cause, and the fight they're making is somehow for us. Meanwhile the DSO management just sounds narrow-minded and hollow and wants to make everyone else responsible for solving what are management problems.

Here's what's real: you're both further alienating the very public that might otherwise be willing to help rescue your jobs from a slow death at the hands of an apathetic public. What you guys ought to be doing is figuring out how to put on a good concert every other week on a total budget small enough [or non-ticket sale income large enough] so that a middle-class couple [okay, call 'em 'upper middle class' if it will make you feel better] can get a pair of decent seats for less the fifty-bucks. Of course, you might have to begin acting like the 95% of all other musicians on the planet who take on a variety of playing tasks, or -- heaven forbid -- a few students. I wonder if the DSO board is familiar with the concept of a Section 363 sale? You musicians had better hope they're not! Or else start dusting off the old audition material.

Oct. 06 2010 11:03 PM
Thomas VanderMeulen from Ann Arbor, MI

Hello New York. I'm a 20+ year resident of Southeast Michigan and work for a financial institution in downtown Detroit. My wife and I have attended Detroit Symphony Orchestra events in the past, but we're not season ticket holders. However, I'm sure we're exactly the age & income demographic the DSO would like to have in the auditorium every week. Consider that my wife and I are both employed, college-educated, have had some musical training as students -- she quite a bit more than I -- and we even raised at least one musician among our two children, and one wonders: why on Earth *aren't* we in the DSO audience every week? Or at least more often? Besides us, I'm confident there are many more living in the area with the background, interest, and wherewithall to make a pretty sizeable dent in the DSO's budget shortfall. Indeed, why aren't we *all* in the DSO audience more often? Well, I can't speak for everyone in my demographic or income level, but for me it's a two-word answer: ticket prices.

Let's put it into perspective. The cost of a pair of 22-concert season tickets on the Main Floor 'B' section is $1,794. That's $81.81 each week for two seats in the auditorium to which we need to add the fuel to drive downtown and back, park, have something to eat. Managed well, that's another $30 [it may astound you New Yorkers to learn that we can park downtown for $6!], for a weekly total of $110. Let's consider what entertainment alternatives the DSO is competing with. For starters, we could host two friends for a nice dinner out, and make it a social event. We could go to movies on Saturday and Sunday both and have money left over for popcorn and possibly soda pops. Instead of four weekends at the symphony, we could use the $440 a month to make the payment on a $27,700 car loan (72 months at 4.5%), then make the two-hour drive in our comfortable new car to the Oberlin Conservatory to hear some very fine classical music. The DSO musicians recognize that for every seat in the orchestra there are dozens of very-good to very-fine musicians eager to take their spots. But, the DSO musicians say, unless the pay is sufficient to retain only the very best of musicians, the currently world-class quality of the orchestra will inevitably decline.

Hey, here's what's real: we, the ideal-but-still-prospective consumers of the DSO's classical music, just don't care that much. I've got news for you, Haden McKay & friends, 'Pines of Rome' played by college students in the Finney Chapel was as stirring and memorable as anything I've ever heard in Phoenix, Detroit, Cleveland, and New York. The extra 2% of perfection you're arguing for matters only to a very rapidly diminishing minority of music consumers. The rest of us are voting with our discretionary dollars on 'More Variety' instead of 'Perfect Performance' [you guys have heard of the iPod, right?].

(to be continued ... )

Oct. 06 2010 11:01 PM
Banjo from Detroit

It's probably safe to say the auto makers money won't return to the arts in "the D" even if they return to prosperity, which means music and the museums are going to start having to look elsewhere.

Oct. 04 2010 08:25 PM

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