Detroit implements

While not unexpected, this is not good news:

Eleventh hour talks on Friday to head off a work stoppage at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra failed to settle a rancorous labor dispute between management and musicians…No further negotiating sessions are scheduled and DSO President Anne Parsons said Friday afternoon that management is now implementing the terms of its last best offer, which includes base pay cuts for orchestra veterans of about 30%, from $104,650 to $70,200 in the first year, rising to $73,800 in the third year. The proposal also includes expanding the job to include playing chamber music, teaching and other outreach duties.

“We’re offering them work and we hope they’ll consider it,” said Parsons…

In August, the players authorized their leaders to call a strike at any time. Spokesman Haden McKay, a cellist, said that the full orchestra is to meet today, after which they would issue a more fully developed announcement. “The alternative to a settlement is to live under a proposal that we don’t like or to strike,” said McKay.

McKay sounded a little harsher for the Detroit News:

“Our choices now are to live under their proposals or strike,” said the musicians’ spokesman, Haden McKay, a cellist. “We believe that management intends to impose their proposal as a way to force a strike.”

That seems likely to me. The “last best offer” that management is implementing is actually a proposal that was formally put on the table a day before the contract expired. It contained some non-economic proposals that were almost guaranteed to provoke a strike. Implementing that offer is a risky strategy for management. The musicians are bound to file an unfair labor practice charge with the NLRB and deem the strike an unfair labor practice strike. If the Board upholds the charge, then management is on the hook for back wages for all the work cancelled by the strike.

It’s a fool’s errand for a non-lawyer to predict how the NLRB would handle a charge like this. But, as a non-lawyer, it’s very hard to see how management can plausibly claim that the negotiations are at impasse over a proposal that’s barely been discussed.

Management may be counting on the eventual settlement including the dropping of any NLRB charges, which is pretty typical. But the longer the strike goes, the more likely it is that there will be some finding against the management, which could potentially change the dynamics of the situation substantially in favor of the musicians.

And, if the musicians do strike, it’s likely to be a long one. Orchestras, being non-profits, lose money when the musicians are working. Detroit would not the first orchestra to save lots of money by having the musicians walking a picket line for a few months. It’s a lot more painful for the musicians than it is for management, after all. And there don’t appear to be any obvious pressure points that would cause the management to want to settle any time soon.

One could argue, of course, that managements aren’t getting paid not to put on concerts. But until the Detroit board comes to feel that way, this is likely to continue to be a situation in which the musicians bear most of the pain.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.


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