Time to end the Detroit strike

I am no longer working for the musicians’ union so I am just going to call it like I see it…

It is time for the musicians of the DSO to make their best deal and go back to work. Sadly, we have seen this so many times – musicians using brute force to try to compel a board to buy more orchestra than it is willing to pay for. It never works because there is no buy-in from the people who have to make it happen.

And while I am at it (“it” being the slaughter of sacred cows), no more time should be wasted on the “snap back” in the third year. I would have to take off both shoes as well as my gloves to count the number of times a contract has been reopened to break promises that no one had any intention of keeping.

Make no mistake – the musicians are not wrong. The DSO board will get less orchestra if it pays less money to musicians. There is a strong correlation between quality and compensation, owing to the simple law of supply and demand – over time, musicians will sell their labor to the orchestra that will pay the highest price. As long as we have cities that want the best and are willing to pay for it, the rest will have to settle. And we do have such cities – Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, Minneapolis… even Cleveland, with its economic woes, has made a commitment to maintaining the top-tier standing of The Cleveland Orchestra.

There is no question that what is happening in Detroit is a shame and a loss.

There can be hope for the future. A lesson can be learned from the Toronto Symphony experience at the turn of the century. The musicians won a huge settlement after an 11-week strike, only to lose everything they had gained a short 18 months later. The reason was rage. However, once the board was finished having its way with the musicians, the directors had the good sense to make sure they had the right people on the bus, starting with a baggage-free CEO who closed the curtains to the outside world and began the healing. A decade later, the TSO is a thriving, wonderful orchestra.

But for now, despite the endless parade of phony deadlines and phonier up-talk from the management side, the musicians need to suck it up and accept some version of the inevitable. Not least because who can stand watching management collect their paychecks while the musicians are on the street? It is reminiscent of the Golden Age of the Calgary Philharmonic lockout, when the government agencies, the administrators, and an army of consultants shut the band down for 4 months so they could get down to the serious business of writing reports without the distraction of having to produce concerts. At the end of the day the price of silence was in excess of $600,000.

It’s over, guys. You ran a great campaign and it truly is heartbreaking. But it is time to go back to work. That work includes playing beautifully but it also includes rebuilding your orchestral institution. You need a large and loyal audience, dedicated financial support, and the right leadership team. At this point, you have a far better chance of achieving those things if you work at building connections, not picket signs.

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Laura Brownell

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