By Barry Johnson
Whenever management/musician negotiations break down at symphony orchestras around the country, I immediately think about the Oregon Symphony and its problems. Last year, faced with another large deficit, the symphony cut staff and musician salaries and benefits significantly. It's a credit to the trust between management and musicians here that they reached this painful outcome together, without acrimony.
Things aren't so happy in Detroit. The protracted struggle between the management of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and its musicians reached a critical point Saturday night when orchestra members authorized a strike, according to the Detroit Free Press. We know that the DSO has been losing money at a phenomenal rate (by Portland standards, anyway) for years -- a projected $9 million in 2010. The only place to cut substantially into deficits of this magnitude is in the wages paid to the musicians, which the musicians themselves acknowledge.
Management wants to cut the base salary of veteran players from around $104,650 per year to $73,800, which is around 29 percent. By year three of this proposed contract, base pay would rise to nearly $80,000. The players proposed a cut to $80,000 the first year and rising steeply back to $96,600 by the third year. So unless someone budges, the musicians will go on strike Sept. 24.
In addition to resisting their own personal financial whack, the musicians are arguing that a cut of this magnitude will knock it out of the elite of American orchestras, if not immediately then over time. The Free Press account quotes cellist Haden McKay: "That top sliver of talent, the ones who can truly thrill the audience, will not come here." And just in salary terms, Detroit will drop from #10 in the nation to around #18, below the Seattle Symphony, for example, according to a study by Nancy Malitz, if the management proposal is adopted.