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January 12, 2011

Tiny sign of movement toward resuming negotiations in Detroit Symphony strike

I don't pretend to be able to read the tea leaves left in the cup of any labor dispute, but a press release issued late Wednesday from the management of the Detroit Symphony made me think there might be a glimmer of hope toward -- well, toward resuming serious negotiations.

No idea if that would lead to a settlement to a strike by the musicians that has silenced the 2010-11 season, but it would be nice to know everyone was heading back into discussions.

Unfortunately, it sounds like tempers remain frayed, since the management statement opens with this loaded line: "This afternoon, while striking DSO players were continuing their agenda of misguided and impulsive communications, the DSO negotiating team was finalizing a new offer aimed at ending the current work stoppage."

The players, of course, have been sounding off as well, as in this statement also posted today in conjunction with a press conference:

"It is time for DSO executives to put an end to the pain they are causing the community and accept the compromise proposal ... senior executives should not be drawing one, thin dime of money donated by generous individuals and corporations to fund the production of music. Without any shows, they are essentially getting money for nothing and that’s not good business in anybody’s book."

In management's statement today, there's a slap at that press conference, too, described as "an indicator that DSO musicians may be more interested in their own PR machine than achieving a workable agreement."

Not pretty.

Anyway, the faint sign of a crack in the ice I thought I might possibly have seen was the bit of news contained in the press release: Management "is prepared to submit to [a federal mediator]  an offer detailing how it would spend $36 million over three years once it secures additional, sustainable funding that would both close the gap between its position and the union's and support the enhanced communal and educational activities that are now even more important for the orchestra to revive and thrive."

That $36 million figure is significant. As the Free Press reports: "The strike began Oct. 4 in response to implemented pay cuts of about 30 percent and work rule changes. The two sides remain $2 million apart. In December, U.S. Sen. Carl Levin and then Gov. Jennifer Granholm publicly outlined a compromise that split the financial difference between the parties with a $36-million package over three years."

The players liked that idea, but management balked. Now, I guess, the situation has changed a bit.

I don't know where any of this will end. I only know that both sides, as usual in these labor disputes, have made choices of language and judgment that they will regret in the long run. But everyone needs to let go of something if there's going to be any chance of rescuing one of the country's finest orchestras.

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:15 PM | | Comments (2)


I personally think that both sides are screwed in this particular instance; bridges have been burned, and the Rubicon's been crossed. Yuck.

And that's an absolute shame. I have a number of recorded radio broadcasts of this orchestra, and most of the performances are "keepers." I only regret that I never had the opportunity to see them perform live.

Excellent writing, Tim.

True, everybody is really p--- off. What I find most troubling, is the musicians completely ignoring the economy and shrinking (dying) classical music fans. They think is as simple as changing marketing and fundraising efforts. No, it is much more than that. The evidence is that they barely fill a church of 700 for 1 night show at $35 seats. That kind of patronage is about 9,000 times too low to support 85 musicians earning $80-$100k.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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