Wassup in Detroit?

The Detroit Symphony went on strike a little over four weeks ago, although negotiations broke down several weeks before that. That puts the strike clock at around 11:45PM, by normal standards – negotiations seem to begin to get serious, during an orchestra strike, after about six weeks.

Why is that? Why not sooner?

I think the biggest reason is that managements are on two schedules conflicting time lines while musicians are on a third. The three meet, like a Venn diagram, around six weeks into a strike (assuming it’s a real strike and not a symbolic one a la The Cleveland, or ours in 1994.)

Management has an incentive, once the strike begins and they’ve taken the PR hit, to keep the musicians out for a while. Each week the musicians aren’t on salary, management doesn’t have to pay wages, overscale, seniority, pension, payroll taxes, and (as DSO management rather tackily canceled the musicians’ benefit package), health benefits as well. By my calculations, that’s a minimum of $250K per week.

DSO management has claimed that their net financial benefit is smaller, as they’re losing ticket sales and donations. But their only major permanent loss is on single-ticket sales; although subscribers are offered refunds on canceled concerts, most have apparently opted to exchange their tickets or donate their value to the orchestra. And donations not made in October can easily be made in later months.

But there’s a conflicting ticking clock for management: they’re not putting on concerts, which is why there’s an orchestra in the first place. After a few weeks, questions start to be asked by civic leaders, board members, the press, and even the management’s peers about just what it is that management is doing all day long. Funders begin to wonder where their money went, if not to put on concerts. And the board begins to feel some pressure as well; people don’t join boards in order to run labor disputes, get into public messes, or to be picketed, even if only by proxy.

The musicians’ calendar is simpler. They go on strike, get lots of press coverage and some expressions of sympathy for a few days, and then get to spend the rest of the strike watching their savings diminish and learning just how hard it is putting on concerts, doing PR, and liaising with their supporters. Running a strike is, for orchestra musicians, far harder work than playing in an orchestra, if only because running a strike is not something that we spent our whole lives learning how to do well. The longer musicians do it, and the longer they go without their regular income, the harder it is for the orchestra to sustain the strike and for the committee to lead it while still trying to convince management that the orchestra is not going to cave anytime soon.

The AFM Strike Fund is intended to help with the financial burden, as are such things as ICSOM’s recent “call to action,” which has already produced some significant contributions from other ICSOM orchestras to the DSO musicians’ warchest. The Strike Fund benefit schedule was modified substantially in 1996 (for which I was partly responsible as ICSOM chair) to increase benefits as the strike wore on, recognizing that striking for more than a week or two becomes very, very hard for musicians, especially when the initial burst of PR dissolves. But, even at its maximum level, strike fund benefits only replace a small portion of a DSO musicians’ regular paycheck.

Put these three timelines together and what you get is a a willingness on the part of all parties to at least think about settling after about six weeks or so. That Detroit appears to have gotten there a little early could be a result, or combination, of many factors, none of which are really knowable in full by anyone.

It appears, though, that “willingness to talk” is not the same as “willingness to negotiate”:

“There has been no progress,” said cellist Haden McKay, a spokesman for the musicians. He declined further comment, citing a news blackout that had been instituted as part of the ground rules for the talks.

DSO president Anne Parsons put a slightly more positive spin on the day, saying the sides made “modest progress by having a full discussion of the issues.” The two sides agreed to speak by phone over the weekend about the possibility of scheduling another meeting.

One could speculate that Parsons’ claim that progress was made by re-hashing what must be all-too-familiar ground to the negotiating teams might indicate that the management and/or board is feeling some pressure to at least look as if they’re trying to get this thing ended. But it would only be speculation uninformed by any knowledge of the specifics.

The fact remains that the parties are so far apart, and the nature of the issues so fundamental to the future of the DSO, that it seems unlikely that a settlement is likely any time soon. These kinds of strikes (and I can’t recall one quite like this in a top-tier American orchestra) don’t get settled until one side or another is essentially willing to concede defeat. That’s going to take another couple of months, if not more.

I wish that wasn’t the case, but I’d bet good money on it. It could be that the real crunch time is when the orchestra has to start selling tickets for next year, and that’s not until next February at the earliest.

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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