Striking Musicians Protest Detroit Mayor’s Speech

In a town where hard hats – not concert tuxedoes – have been the marks of union street credibility, striking Detroit Symphony Orchestra musicians protested Mayor Dave Bing’s decision to deliver his State of the City address inside an orchestra hall that hasn’t heard a note from them in months.

The picket – one of the biggest public displays for the musicians since they walked off the job Oct. 4 in black concert dress – illustrated the rising stakes for the workers and the symphony, which suspended its full season Saturday after the musicians rejected what management had said was its final offer. No new negotiations are scheduled.

Photo: AP Photo
Edith Conn, 13, from Detroit, takes part in a protest in Detroit before the start of the State of the City address.

About 100 musicians and members of other labor unions carried signs Tuesday night outside the Max M. Fisher Music Center in Detroit after a day in which other union workers protested outside the capitols in Michigan, Wisconsin and other states. Violinist Joe Goldman said it was “wonderful to have all these people supporting the musicians of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. “

“It’s pretty clear there is a war on the middle class, from musicians of the Detroit Symphony to city workers in other unions,” Goldman said. “The only way to fight back is for people to join a union and work together. We’re ready to negotiate at any time and we feel a deal could be made. The money is there. They just need to allocate in a way that works for everyone. Management and the board are refusing to negotiate.”

The Metro Detroit AFL-CIO mobilized local labor unions to join the musicians’ cause and tie the rally to the eight-day protest in Madison, Wis., where public employees have rallied against a bill that would eliminate most of their collective bargaining rights. Other states such as Ohio are pursuing similar legislation that supporters say will help control public spending.

“We’re going to look back at this moment . . . as a defining moment in how the public was pitted against themselves. The public is made up of more union members than millionaires,” said John Beck, an associate professor in the School of Human Resources and Labor Relations at Michigan State University. “What they’re up against is a fundamental questioning of unions in the U.S. right now.”

Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., said demonstrations like the one in Detroit were unusual in the arts.

“Musicians are not auto workers – they’re not normally militant,” Chaison said. He saw the same dynamic running through Wisconsin and elsewhere affecting the Detroit Symphony.

“It’s almost become a sign of good management to face down the unions,” Chaison said. “At one time a good manager and good state administrators, governors and mayors would build their reputations on being able to get along with unions.”

The orchestra’s management has said it’s simply responding to crushing financial and economic conditions. Even before the strike, the orchestra had seen its donations fall, its endowment shrink and ticket sales decline as the state’s auto industry closed plants, shed jobs and struggled with bankruptcy.

The musicians have offered to accept some pay cuts, but Detroit Federation of Musicians leaders had urged members to turn down the most recent proposal which also would have saddled them with higher health care deductibles and travel costs.

Symphony spokeswoman Elizabeth Weigandt said Tuesday’s rally outside the Fisher center was a matter between the musicians and mayor’s office. Bing’s spokeswoman Karen Dumas said changing venues so late was “logistically impossible” but “no indication of our interest in seeing this matter resolved for the good of all involved.”

Cellist Haden McKay, a musicians’ spokesman, said the players understand the state’s economic struggles and nobody was arguing “we should be getting paid what they make in L.A.”

“Obviously we take this seriously,” he said. “Musicians are faced with the direct threat of losing their jobs and still voted down the proposal overwhelmingly. It must be that we saw something worth fighting for.”

The Detroit strike hasn’t set a record. A strike at the Honolulu Symphony, which closed last year, lasted for two years in the mid-1990s, and ensembles in New Jersey and San Diego endured one-year strikes in the 1980s.

But Chaison worried that both sides in Detroit had dug their heels in too far. He predicted the decision to suspend the season would hurt the orchestra in a city that can little afford to lose a cultural icon.

“There has to be a feeling that Detroit will rise again,” he said. “If the symphony orchestra fails then there’s a feeling that everything is being closed up. You can’t just get back a symphony orchestra.”