Was it worth it?

There is a famous (although possibly apocryphal) story about Richard Nixon’s visit to China. Reportedly, Kissinger told Nixon that Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai was a student of the French Revolution. So Nixon asked him, during their first informal meeting, what he thought the impact of the French Revolution on the course of history had been. Zhou Enlai reportedly replied “it’s too early to tell.”

There are no details yet about the Detroit settlement that might begin to answer the question of whether the Detroit strike was “worth it” to the participants. But, even if there was more information than has yet been made public, it would be far too early to tell.

Of course, the costs were very different for both sides. It’s relatively easy to quantify the costs to the musicians; they each lost tens of thousands of dollars, even after strike fund payments and any work they were able to pick up during the strike.

The cost to the institution is much, much harder to assess. Orchestras are non-profits because their costs are not covered by ticket income, so clearly the DSO came out ahead just considering those two line items, as is usually the case (a major reason that orchestra strikes tend to drag on for a while). The harder cost to figure out is lost contributions. No doubt DSO management has some idea of what this amounts to at this point, but if they did have major hits in contributions, they’d be unlikely to admit it in public. It seems unlikely that there weren’t some hits; strikes are terrible for the public perception of orchestras, which is why managements usually work hard to avoid them. And donors are far more likely that ticket holders to base their future actions on their feelings about how the institution is run.

But strikes aren’t about the short term. The DSO management took the hard line they did (including the whole Proposal B business that virtually guaranteed a strike) on the publicly stated grounds that doing anything else would ensure the DSO would be out of business in the near future – and I have no doubt that they believed that. The DSO musicians struck because they believed that acquiescing to management’s demands would lead to a large and permanent decrease both in their incomes and the orchestra’s artistic standing. Both sides believed that they were engaged in a battle about the orchestra’s future, and one that they had to win in order for the orchestra not to change beyond recognition.

I suspect that, for the musicians, there was an additional motivation. This strike has reminded me over and over about my orchestra’s labor dispute in 1993-94 (although we only struck for a weekend). If I’m right about this, then the DSO strike was in part about the failure of management to truly negotiate at all.

There are many ways of busting a union. Orchestra managements don’t engage in the most obvious ones for lots of reasons. But it’s possible to undermine a union’s ability to negotiate by essentially refusing to negotiate. Such behavior is nominally illegal under US labor law – but any competent management-side labor lawyer knows how to do it legally.

The Chinese theoretician Sun Tzu, generally thought to be a contemporary of Socrates’,  famously defined the goal of war as imposing one’s will on the enemy without letting one’s enemy do the same. It’s very, very dangerous for a group of unionized workers to let management to that to them, because threatens the whole concept of bargaining going forward.

But, regardless of why the parties chose to engage in the longest labor dispute in recent American orchestral history, it’s going to be years before anyone on either side is going be able to plausibly claim that it was “worth it” – or, or that matter, “not worth it.”

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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