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WQXR Features

Labor Dispute Quiets Detroit Symphony

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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.