By Martha Grevatt
Published Apr 17, 2011 11:04 AM
Since Oct. 4, union-organized symphony players around the country have had their eyes on Detroit. That day members of American Federation of Musicians Local 5 went on strike against the Detroit Symphony Orchestra rather than cave in to management’s demand for a 33 percent pay cut. DSO executives, including the orchestra’s $400,000-a-year CEO Anne Parsons, also wanted musicians to perform in schools and at community events without additional compensation.
On April 4, appropriately six months after the strike began, the Negotiating Committee of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra musicians announced a tentative settlement on a new contract.
“It is a strike that we believe management wanted to force on us, seemingly happy to see many of our musicians move on to other orchestras or to just retire — musicians that management would replace with much less experienced, much lower-paid players who will never have known the great DSO we have today,” the union charged early in the strike.
“It is a strike that we called only after management flatly rejected our proposal to accept more than $9 million in cuts in salary and benefits, including a 22 percent cut in salary next year. And after management rejected our offer to negotiate even that proposal at our last meeting, provided management also made some concessions.” (www.detroitsymphonymusicians.org)
Musicians’ repeated offers to meet DSO management halfway were rebuffed, as was an offer to submit outstanding issues to binding arbitration.
The recession was blamed for a decline in endowments from corporate “philanthropists” such as the Kresge and Ford Foundations. At one point, when a settlement seemed close, the banks holding DSO’s debt threatened to call in a $54 million construction loan. Building Max Fisher Hall — and the resulting indebtedness to Comerica, PNC, JP Morgan Chase, Charter One and Bank of America — was one of the dubious business moves that hurt the orchestra financially.
DSO executives, who typically shifted blame to worker salaries, had board ties to both the funders and the debt holders. Five of six top DSO executives and three paid consultants were donors to the Campaign for a New Beginning Fund of the League of American Orchestras. The League holds management conferences on topics such as “The New [anti-union] Reality.”
Union musicians feared the League would set a pattern — in Detroit, despite its high union density — to break orchestra unions around the country.
Solidarity played significant role
Solidarity with the musicians was high. Metro Detroit AFL-CIO President Saundra Williams and United Auto Workers President Bob King were among those who picketed with strikers. Major concerts at Fisher Hall were cancelled after appeals were made to artists not to cross the line. Concerts by DSO musicians at alternative venues were sold out. Players in other major symphonies wore solidarity wristbands during their performances.
The union reached out to the community by performing in homeless shelters, including the Ruth Ellis Center for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer youth. (Ellis was an African-American lesbian activist until her death in 2000 at the age of 101.)
The contract imposes steep pay cuts, but not the one-third cut demanded by Parsons and her corporate cohorts. Artists who give additional performances will be paid for their work. A major strength is the absence of the divisive — but all-too-common — two-tier pay structure.
What the capitalist media never mentioned — but a major sticking point for the union — was management’s racist and sexist plan to end audio-only auditions-where players are behind a screen and judges listen without knowing the artist’s race, gender, age, weight or any trait that might lead to discrimination. The union won — the screen stays!
Free concerts celebrating the end of the strike — with advance reservations required — were sold out in a matter of hours.