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Movement in Detroit?

0 Robert Levine


The striking musicians and management of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra traded barbs and accusations on today while a settlement to the 15-week-old strike remained elusive — even as management appeared to sweeten its offer for the first time since November.

The musicians called a news conference to accuse management of threatening to cancel the rest of this season and the entire 2011-12 season while still paying executive, staff and music director salaries.

DSO management responded by accusing the musicians of “vitriol” and being more interested in “making attacks in the press” than reaching a settlement. At the same time, management said that it was preparing a new $36-million offer over three years that would meet the conditions established by a compromise outlined publicly last month by U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

However, management said it still needed to find additional funding of $2 million to reach the $36-million target. The musicians responded that the offer promised to be nothing more than a bill of goods, because it was contingent on management raising the additional funds. Cellist Haden McKay, a spokesman for the musicians, called it a “non-offer.”

While Wednesday marked the first time management had publicly announced a $36-million financial package, the accusatory language exchanged between the two sides and the contingency wrinkle left questions about whether progress was being made. No contract talks are currently scheduled.

Obviously this isn’t a settlement. The musicians appear skeptical that it’s even movement. But I’d bet it is. The fact remains that $2 million over the life of a new agreement simply isn’t much money. Given the uncertainties surrounding all revenue projections for all orchestras more than one or two years out - especially in the current fog of guesses about the course of the economy and the auto industry in particular - “securing” an additional $2 million is essentially just re-labeling a new projection.

I wonder why this is happening now. I learned from our experience in Milwaukee in 1993-94 that the need to announce a new season is a real incentive for a management to settle an uncertain labor situation,  although in our case it was a prolonged “work and talk” punctuated by a short strike that management needed to end. Of course season announcements can be moved around some. Perhaps the musicians’ most recent campaign activities at the annual auto show had an impact. But there’s no way for an outsider to know, and even insiders can’t know for sure. I still don’t fully understand why we had such a difficult negotiation in 93/94 and why it played out the way it did. And I was chair of the orchestra committee.

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