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Reading the tea leaves in Detroit

0 Robert Levine

Breaking news on the Detroit Symphony today:

Talks to renegotiate the Detroit Symphony Orchestra musicians contract have ended without a deal, a surprise since a spokesperson for the musicians earlier said that they were “expecting and hoping” to be part of the solution to the DSO’s budget crisis.

“The DSO management team and orchestra are not currently engaged in discussions on the current contract which runs through August 2010,” the parties said in a statement. “Although discussions that began last year were amicable, both parties were not able to mutually agree on methods to modify the current contract.”

DSO management, some funders and creditors see players’ concessions as a key to stabilizing the orchestra’s finances. Battered by the recession, the DSO ran a $3.8-million deficit in 2009 and projects about a $5-million shortfall on a $30-million budget in 2010. The orchestra is also struggling to make the $2.4-million annual interest payments it owes on the Max M. Fisher Music Center. DSO leaders say the budget needs to shrink to $20-$25 million in today’s economy.

…Both sides declined further comment, but the talks likely failed because of disagreements over parity with other orchestras and “recovery.” These were the issues in the contentious 2007 contract talks. Musicians will typically agree to furlough weeks (without pay), benefit freezes and other reductions provided they believe concessions will be sufficiently recovered by the end of the deal.

Careful parsing of the language of the joint release (the fact of which is itself significant) does not make clear the status of negotiations for a new agreement. The joint release simply states that “both parties were not able to mutually agree on methods to modify the current contract.” It also suggests that the speculation about the cause of the breakdown in negotiations being disagreements over recovery may not be correct; recovery would, by definition, happen during the term of the new contract.

I suspect what happened is similar to what happened here in 1993; the musicians were willing to agree to make concessions for the current season, but only in the context of getting a better new deal than management was willing to make. In our situation, that led to threats of canceling our 1993 summer season, although in the end management simply paid us to stay home for 7 weeks.

The Detroit management may now in the same situation. I can’t tell from the website if any summer activities have been scheduled. If not, the possibility exists that management could simply lock out the orchestra for the summer weeks and get the concessions they’re seeking for this season that way. Of course, that’s not likely to make getting a new agreement for the 2010-11 season any easier.

On the other hand, the fact of a joint release suggests that some kind of negotiations are still going one.

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