Detroit Symphony Musicians on Strike

— Dianne Feeley

THE MUSICIANS OF the Detroit Symphony Orchestra have been on strike since October 4, 2010. Thirty-five concerts have been cancelled, while the musicians have organized nine magnificent performances with guest conductors in various churches and synagogues in the area. They charged $20 admission and got their friends to volunteer to be ushers and ticket sellers. At a concert of 1100 I attended in a Grosse Pointe Woods church, parishioners seated on either side of me were attending their first symphonic concert.

The DSO was founded in 1914 and remains one of the city’#8221;s cultural jewels. Its home is the elegant and acoustically superb Orchestra Hall. At various moments over the years the symphony has fallen on hard times, but as negotiations opened for the 2010 contract management — claiming a $8.8 million deficit, including a $6.7 million operating shortfall — demanded that the musicians take a 32% pay cut, with a reduction in health care coverage, a freeze in pensions, and an end to tenure.

Musicians would have less say over artistic decisions. The orchestra was to be reduced from 96 to 85; the work year lowered to 32 weeks, during three of which musicians were to perform a variety of non-musical tasks. Two fulltime librarians were to be severed from the contract, their pay slashed 40%. Management even demanded elimination of the provision that ensures temperature control for the musicians’#8221; instruments.

The DSO musicians knew this would be a difficult negotiation and began organizing themselves. They led off the Detroit’#8221;s Labor Day Parade, dressed in their formal black attire, playing their instruments, and passing out leaflets about the proposed contract negotiations.

Given the economic crisis, the DSO musicians indicated they were willing to accept pay cuts, but were concerned that any concession they might make not destroy the quality of the orchestra. For this reason, they refused to consider a three-tier structure that would mean newly hired musicians would never earn what seasoned players earn. They were determined to protect the librarians, as well as their participation in artistic decisions. (In 1987 the musicians struck for three months, demanding the replacement of a conductor they saw as incompetent.)

The musicians, members of American Federation of Musicians (AFM) Local 5, offered a 22% pay cut and specific recommendations about how that could be implemented so it would not severely impact newly accepted musicians. They also outlined a wage recovery program spread over two years. When management would not budge, they filed unfair labor practices charges, set up a web page (, began planning their own concerts and selling their own CDs.

Over the course of the strike, the musicians have continually indicated their willingness to negotiate. On December 16 they accepted Governor Jennifer Granholm and U.S. Senator Carl Levin’#8221;s contract proposal and were prepared to return to the bargaining table to work out details, but DSO Board President Stanley Frankel stated that the package was “beyond what every consultant and our board have said is feasible.”

The musicians have pointed out that it is not mainly the current economic crisis that has led to the DSO deficit. They maintain that it is a series of management decisions, including poor stock market investments, that are bleeding the DSO by $3 million a year and threaten foreclosure on The Max, a $60 million addition that has not proved financially viable. They criticize management’#8221;s talk of austerity while Ann Parsons, the DSO’#8221;s president and CEO, earned almost $415,000 last year. In fact, between 2005-09 her salary package increased 10%.

Management seems content to downsize, but the musicians want to maintain a world-renowned orchestra, asking:

“Why has management decided to take a stand that will force Detroit audiences to hear a “DSO lite” despite the fact that no business ever solved a financial problem by offering an inferior product to the public?

“Why has management chosen to take a stand that discards more than 100 years of a tradition of excellence, a stand that means the people of Detroit, their children, and their children’#8221;s children may lose the opportunity they deserve to continue hearing great music performed at the highest level?”

ATC 150, January-February 2011

Management Leaflets Strikers' Concert

Submitted by Dianne on January 18, 2011 - 6:59pm.

Yesterday was the beginning of the 15th week of a strike by the musicians of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Last Saturday night, as a friend and I approached the church where the strikers were giving a concert, a couple of young people were passing out leaflets, saying "Help end the strike." Of course we took the leaflets read later.

Just before the concert began one of the strike negotiators made a few introductory remarks, reporting that he had been feeling that some progress was being made in their negotiations with management until he’d learned about the leaflet being passed out.

The leaflet, bearing the logo of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, asked us to pressure the union negotiators. It claimed that the strikers’ concerts were dividing and confusing the community, prolonging the strike, depriving Orchestra Hall audiences of orchestral music and diverting money from the DSO that could be used for a settlement.

In fact the concerts have been important in mobilizing strike support among those who attend Orchestra Hall. They always have a full house even though it’s a tight squeeze to fit the musicians and guest soloists up front, even though it’s hard for the audience to sit crammed into pews, and even though intermission is a bit longer than usual because the bathrooms are few. We applaud enthusiastically at every opportunity and each concert I’ve attended ends with a standing ovation.

At Orchestra Hall the musicians were on the stage, so far away. Now they pass us in the corridor. Their friends are the ticket takers and ushers. Over the nearly four months’ strike our appreciation for the musicians of the symphony has deepened. They are demanding an agreement that will not compromise the artistic integrity of the orchestra.

On January 26 a DSO Board meeting will make a decision about proceeding or canceling the rest of the season. The Save Our Symphony group is organizing a petition and a letter-writing campaign to the DSO Board of Directors. The petition has almost 3,000 signatures. If you’d like to sign on, here are the links:

Strike Settled; Detroit Symphony Plays Again!

Submitted by Dianne on April 10, 2011 - 6:58pm.

On Saturday, April 9, at the first concert following a 6-month strike, the musicians entered the stage together, as they do in European orchestras, and the audience stood and welcomed them with 2-minutes of clapping and shouting.

When, after a final 27-hour marathon, management and the musicians’ executive board came up with a tentative agreement, they agreed to hold two free concerts on the weekend, and within an hour the tickets had been snapped up. Over the next month the symphony will present 14 concerts with all seats just $20.

Many of us did not think the strike was going to be settled. Management was intransigent and petty to boot.

For their part, the musicians presented their own concerts—at least twice a month, but as many as five in February. Their concerts were well attended, and so were their picket lines.

Below is the message they sent out to supporters as they went back to work:

MDSO Promise and Thank You - April 9 and 10, 2011

DSO Patrons, Volunteers and Audience Members,

For the past six months the Musicians of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra have been touring your neighborhoods playing to capacity audiences in some of the best acoustic settings that Metro Detroit has to offer. We have played in your homes – the homes of Kirk in the Hills, St. Hugo’s Catholic Church and Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Hills, Our Lady Star of the Sea and St Anne’s Catholic churches in Grosse Pointe Woods and Warren. We have visited two St Patick’s parishes - one in White Lake and the other, our next door neighbor, here in Detroit. We have shared our musicin your childrens’ homes and enjoyed every minute we spent with them in the schools of L’Anse Cruese North in Clinton and Groves High School in Beverley Hills. Our holiday music-making took us to the Boll Family YMCA, Tumaini Center, Mariners Inn in Detroit, as well as Ruth Ellis Center in Highland Park. In all, we brought our music to you in nineteen special concerts around the Metro Detroit area.

Thank you for coming to our home, today, and for allowing us to share our gift of music with you from the stage that we love dearly – the wonderful and magnificent Orchestra Hall.

We acknowledge that this season has been difficult for everyone affiliated with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. The DSO’s heart is troubled. We needed to address some major issues and we very much appreciated your patience and support while we did that.

The Detroit Symphony is still in intensive care but with your help it will recover. You have a voice. You are the voice of our audience, the voice of DSO patrons, volunteers and our community. We need to listen to your voice because we are nothing without you. We promise we will listen.

Our voice speaks best when we are before you, pouring our hearts out and sharing our love of music with you. Please know that we will use that voice and will be tireless in the pursuit of artistic excellence. We remain committed to the vision of a vibrant city for Detroit and we believe that vision includes a major symphony orchestra.

We make this promise to each and every one of you, today: We will give you nothing but the very best we have to offer. Michigan and the City of Detroit will recover and we will still be here when it does. We are committed and we believe.

Thank you,

The Musicians of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra

We would also like to express a heartfelt thanks from the musicians of the DSO to our thousands of supporters in Detroit and around North America and the world. It has been a long and difficult road. We were gratified to learn that many other people
cared deeply about us and our orchestra.

MDSO is appreciative of the time and energy spent in the intervening months by Senator Levin, Governor Granholm, Andy Levin, Dan Gilbert, Matt Cullen, and the Citizens’ Group in attempting to reach a resolution.

Locally, many lovers of orchestral music coalesced into the powerhouse that Save our Symphony has become in the few short months since it formed in November. SOS will become the focal point of a broad new base of support for the DSO going forward.

From Detroit to the four corners of the United States and Canada: our professional colleagues from the world of music created a wave of support which began before we had even announced that we faced difficult negotiations. Individual musicians, AFM locals and the members of dozens of professional orchestras from ICSOM, OCSM and ROPA wrote to us and sent an unprecedented amount of money to our Contingency Fund, well over $250,000. It mattered so much to us to know that our colleagues saw the struggle here as their own.

We learned once again that the wide world of music and musicians is a small one. The solidarity we have felt in 2010 and 2011 will not be forgotten.