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Tea leaves in Detroit

0 Robert Levine

Two items in Detroit’s newspapers yesterday make me think that things are not going well there. The first was in the Detroit Free Press:

Management of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra reiterated today that it would make a new contract offer to its striking musicians this week and would request a response by Feb. 11.

Citing a media blackout, DSO leaders declined to discuss details of the offer or the specifics of today’s meeting of the executive committee of the board. In a statement management said the committee had discussed the orchestra’s deteriorating finances and agreed upon a framework for the new proposal.

Cellist Haden McKay, a spokesman for the musicians, declined to speculate about management’s proposal or the course of negotiations. “We’ll just have to wait and see if it contains something we can work from,” he said.

The February 11th deadline sounds quite ominous, although in fairness it’s only the deadline for a response. If, however, it’s put forward as a “last, best and final” offer, I would suspect that it would be coupled with a “take this or we’ll cancel the rest of the season” demand, even if not phrased that way.

More worrying was an editorial in the Detroit News, the smaller paper in town (and one that leans to the right):

Those in this community who believe the management and board of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra haven’t done enough to end a musicians’ strike that is stretching into its fifth month should take a look at the DSO’s balance sheet. It’s shockingly obvious that the board has already offered far more than is affordable in its bid to restore classical music to Orchestra Hall.

The numbers are awful and the strike is making them worse. As far as we can tell, nothing about the last contract offer from DSO will improve them for the long-term. Fortunately, the musicians rejected that offer, and the DSO board, which meets today, may need to return to a more fiscally prudent position.

By late next week, the DSO board likely will make a decision to cancel the remainder of this year’s season, if the strike is not settled. That will be a pivotal event, pushing off the likelihood of an agreement for months, and leaving orchestra officials with even less resources to settle the contract.

The offer of $33 million over three years that the DSO made in September was a stretch. It would have required the orchestra to meet ambitious fundraising and ticket sales goals. That offer was later moved to $34 million, an amount management freely admitted would guarantee operating deficits of $2 million to $3 million a year.

In December, Sen. Carl Levin and Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who brought no money to the table, prodded the board to settle the strike by increasing the offer to $36 million.

The DSO was able to do that because a group of foundations offered to put up $2 million, but only if the musicians agreed to do community and education work. An offer was structured that allowed musicians to excuse themselves from such work by accepting a smaller paycheck.

Still the musicians balked. And now the board has a difficult decision to make.

I loved the bit about how “fortunately the musicians rejected” the Board’s last offer, which allows the Board now to come up with something more “fiscally prudent.”

It’s not a surprise that the editorial board of the right-leaning paper in town would write something in support of a employer in a labor dispute. What worries me is the extent to which this could have been written by management- because it probably reflects management’s latest meeting with the paper’s editorial board. Too much about the editorial sounds like management griping - the shots at Granholm and Levin, the talk about how musicians could “excuse themselves” from “community and education work” and how the musicians “balked.”

I suspect this is a very strong signal sent from the DSO board and management to the musicians that 1) they won’t like the new offer one bit; and 2) take it or leave it.

Nice job with that press blackout, though.

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